Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2013, 6:00 am

Editorial: Do TIFs need tune-up?

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Earlier this month Atkinson became the latest local government entity to create a TIF district.

That's hardly earth-shattering news, of course. Indeed, we'd venture to say, most of the communities in the Illinois Quad-Cities area have approved a tax increment finance district or been asked to consider one.

There also doesn't seem to be anything all that remarkable about the fact that the TIF approved by the Atkinson Village Board and supported by Mayor August Junior covers nearly all of the town.

Mayor Junior told village trustees the new TIF "will be good for generations to come." There is good reason for his optimism. When used effectively, they bring development to areas that might otherwise not have seen any without their benefits.

By now, most folks know the basic fundamentals of how TIFs work. Any increase in property tax assessments from new development within the TIF district goes into a special fund for use in attracting additional development, improving infrastructure within the district or repaying some development costs. Most Atkinson trustees backed the new TIF. Though the fact that two trustees will not be able to vote on TIF matters -- they own property in the TIF district -- show just why TIFs should be carefully handled.

But are they always? A growing number of critics say no. They subscribe to the notion that TIFs should be used both effectively and sparingly. They also say that many of the flurry of TIFs being created here and throughout the state don't follow the parameters detailed in the legislation that created them in the first place.

Some state lawmakers think so, too. Each year bills are introduced, but go nowhere, to add restrictions to Illinois' TIF laws. (Lawmakers in other states, including neighboring Iowa, also regularly try to scale them back.)

Here in Illinois, we've opposed some of them as job killers. Others that appeared to have merit were never seriously debated despite the growing number of complaints about TIF district creation and practices which critics charge don't comply with those provisions of statutes already in place.

Locally, for example, in East Moline, Ald. Dave Kelley, 5th Ward, has asked the offices of the Illinois Attorney General and state Comptroller to investigate concerns about some of the city's TIF districts. Among them is repayment of $550,000 in TIF funds from two city TIFs mistakenly used for expenditures not eligible under TIF rules.

And in Moline, a group of citizens have been educating themselves about TIF districts in a city that now has a whopping nine of them and another pending. We dismiss the efforts of such people at our own peril. TIF issues aren't limited to bigger cities. Aledo, for example, has faced questions regarding its own sprawling TIF district.

Please note that we are not writing in criticism of any particular TIF, many of which we have supported on these pages. Nor are we singling out Atkinson, Moline, East Moline or Aledo for criticism. But in acknowledging the financial boon TIFs can bring, it's also important to remember that they do not come without costs.

Indeed, school districts around the state, including here in the Quad-Cities have become increasingly vocal about the price their students pay when the growth created by TIF districts increases their schools' responsibilities without providing additional money to pay for them. Fire protection districts, library districts, counties and other taxing bodies also are affected. Remember, too, that it is taxpayers, not developers or government leaders who will write the checks.

What's the answer?

Back in December, in the wake of a bill giving a permanent tax break to a tenant of the Quad Cities International Airport, we noted that government incentives aren't going anywhere and will surely grow as the area tries to grow itself.

TIFs are one of the many economic development tools we were talking about when we urged local leaders to accept the challenge to explore creative ways to mitigate the impact of incentives on the community. State leaders, too, should take on TIFs in a comprehensive rather than a piecemeal way. It seems clear to us that after decades of experience with them, TIFs could use a fine-tuning.

The challenge remains. Any takers?