SSA #43: Taxation Without Representation

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of SSA #43. Maybe you’ve read about an upcoming SSA meeting in the alderman’s weekly newsletter? Maybe you’ve read about major decisions taken by its Board that determine not only Devon’s cleanliness, snow removal policies, noise level, and decorations, but also how much property owners within the SSA district will have to pony up in extra real estate taxes to pay for these services?  No?

You should know about it, because SSA #43 taxes property owners within its boundaries (Kedzie to Damen on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western) to support its initiatives. It’s one of those anonymous, quasi-governmental bodies with taxing authority that has its hands in residents’ pockets and hides in plain sight.

[Scroll down until you get to the part about how much it costs each property in the district to pay for the SSA. Keep in mind that these are the 2013 figures.]

SSA #43 is the Special Services Area for Devon Avenue, created by the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce and the Devon merchants to boost business on Devon Avenue without having to actually address the basic problem, i.e., exclusionary retailing, or make any substantive changes that would require economic planning involving the entire West Ridge community. It’s worth noting that one of the objectives mentioned in the financial statements (Note 1) is to establish competitive commercial districts; how this can be accomplished when merchants refuse to serve most of the immediate market is not addressed.

The SSA is run by the Chamber of Commerce and the SSA Board to benefit businesses within its district, although some receive no help at all while others control the Board and the money and use it primarily to benefit merchants between Western and Washtenaw. You know—the merchants who don’t want local residents in their stores unless those residents are the right ethnicity. This used to be called discrimination, but it’s not politically correct to say that in relation to minorities. Let’s call it exclusionary retailing: by stocking merchandise that supports the culture of only one ethnic group in our diverse community, shoppers from other ethnic groups are not only excluded but also actively helped to self-select out of local stores. Because 80% of the neighborhood is not the target market, merchants must rely on shoppers from other areas and tourists to make money. And those shoppers now have better places to go.

The merchants may not want our business, but they do want our money.  What the SSA describes as “a small assessment” is largely unknown to the residents who pay it. As if that’s not bad enough, SSA #43 overlaps with a TIF district. When SSA and TIF areas overlap, an increase in taxes for one results in an increase for the other. You do remember reading that on your tax bill, or hearing about it from the alderman, right? If not, you might want to check out a 2012 report by the City’s Inspector General,

In theory, the SSA’s Board represents both business and property owners. In fact, it doesn’t. In addition to its tasks of removing snow (except on Tuesdays, when there’s no point since the stores aren’t open and who cares about pedestrians anyway?) and cleaning up the mountains of garbage left by shoppers, the SSA also helps plan and fund so-called “community” events, such as the upcoming FunFest and the Devon Community Market. These events always fail because (1) the larger community doesn’t shop on Devon and therefore doesn’t care about business-building efforts; (2) there’s no parking; and (3) the planning group lacks imagination except when it comes to reporting fantasy figures for attendance.

This year the SSA planned to spend tax dollars on street banners celebrating Indian and Pakistani Independence Days. No money was spent on banners to celebrate American Independence Day, which joins Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Easter, Purim, Labor Day, Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas as holidays no longer recognized or celebrated by store owners on Devon. The SSA does celebrate Hindu holidays and created an all-night Eid shopping event–wihout warning nearby residents, many kept awake by the cars, music, fireworks, screaming children, and boisterous adults celebrating the end of Ramadan. It took a 3:00 a.m. thunderstorm to get them to go home.

There was an attempt to renew the SSA for another 15 years–until 2028–but it failed to pass the City Council in May 2015. [Note that the link to the Council ordinance specifies that certain “private information has been redacted from public viewing.”] The tax increase requested by the SSA (from .40 to 1.5%) was in addition to all other property taxes levied, so I suspect the failure to pass was related to the whopping property tax increase about to be levied, but the SSA did not let the issue die.

On further checking, I found that the Council approved the money grab in December 2015 with the signing of agreements which are, not surprisingly, no longer available on the City’s Web site. Both the 2015 and 2016 agreements have vanished, although the Web site assures me that City staffers have been notified and will search for the missing documents. Imagine: public documents relating to a secretive property tax hike suddenly gone from public view. And I mean suddenly— they disappeared the day after I accessed them.

The SSA currently has three vacancies, according to the April 2016 minutes. While I strongly encourage community members to apply for appointment, be warned that the alderman makes the choices, though members are technically mayoral appointees. It’s a given that she–and they–won’t want anybody who speaks for residents or thinks independently.

The next meeting of SSA #43 is on Thursday, September 15, at 4:00 p.m. at the alderman’s office Meetings are open to the public, but don’t be surprised if you show up and the meeting is cut short, or everything under discussion is moved to executive session.

SSA #43 is yet another instance of the powers-that-be operating in secrecy. The 2013 initiative claimed public outreach, but did anyone from the community attend? Hard to tell, especially if the 2013 creation and 2015 attempt at renewal are any gudes. In 2013, only 100 copies were published of a “Special Pamphlet” describing the district and outlining its funding and its responsibilities. That isn’t enough copies to distribute to the businesses in the SSA district, let alone the residential property owners. In 2015, notice of the SSA’s request for renewal was published not in a local paper, where residents might actually see it, but in the Chicago Sun Times classifieds, where it would be easy to miss. Of course, if you don’t know there’s an SSA that’s taxing you, you wouldn’t be looking for any such announcement, would you? It wasn’t mentioned in the alderman’s newsletter, either.

In both cases, the SSA met the letter of the law—notice was given, but not its spirit—actually informing the public.

The SSA was helped in its quest for a tax hike by an expensive consulting firm, Place Consulting. Its Community Engagement page provides a blueprint for the kind of outreach this SSA needs to do if it really wants to fully engage residents in economic development. But I doubt if that’s the SSA’s goal. Levying taxes in secrecy and ignoring the community’s needs and desires suits them better.

Didn’t America’s founders fight a war against this?

 

 

 

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