Using TIFs for Something Besides Private Investor Development

Ideas and Issues
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May 15, 2021

New York City

It was serendipity of a sort. I was reading a book about the drive to make higher education free in the United States, and, to my surprise, on page 34 it mentioned someone named Chuck Wilbur. It isn’t the most uncommon name in the world, but once it said he was the executive director of the Michigan Promise Zones Association, I knew this must be my old ACORN comrade from the 1980s, who I hadn’t seen for decades. I zipped to the web, tracked down the association’s website, saw a picture of a man with white hair and a goatee, but I was not fooled, and sent out an ice-cold email with some confidence along with an invitation to this Chuck Wilbur to join me on Wade’s World to visit about whatever this was and what he had been doing.

Indeed, within twenty-four hours Chuck confirmed my suspicions that it was he, as well as our last meeting in New Orleans around Washington Park in the Marigny, when he was in town for a broadcasters’ convention thirty-years ago in 1991. I had read Chuck’s bio so I knew he had fashioned out a career and some expertise in education, serving on the staffs of Senators and Representatives and Michigan Governor Granholm, as an educational consultant. While in the governor’s office he had bootstrapped an initiative that began in Kalamazoo when some deep-pocketed sorts had promised to finance the education of students from area high schools to afford higher education. The Governor and Chuck recognized the popularity and potential of the program and tried to figure out a way to make it a signature program with bipartisan support and a sustainable funding source.

TIFs is the abbreviation for Tax-Increment-Financing, one of the more controversial funding mechanisms in the public financing toolbox, because it designates general revenue normally slated for schools and cities from property and other taxes for special purposes. Usually, TIFs have been waylaid by developers who have sold the mirage of more jobs and sales tax revenue some fine day for a mall or giant building to public officials desperate for almost any kind of economic development. Chuck was able to sell the TIFs in this case to fund “Promise Zones,” like development zones, except in ten larger cities in Michigan as a way for the state to finance educational opportunity with half of the money paying the Promise bills and half going to the local city. Later they were able to expand to five more zones in subsequent years, and now Chuck was still shepherding the effort.

Was I surprised, no indeed! When Chuck was with ACORN, we wanted to put an initiative on the ballot in Michigan, but our grassroots, lower income membership couldn’t afford the effort. Chuck devised a system that has come to be called “petitioning,” but he reminded me was then called “cannistering,” as a cross between tagging and canvassing. Putting scores of people out to get signatures to get the measure on the ballot, the petitions would also ask for any contribution in coin or cash that signers could offer to support the campaign. It worked. We were able to get on the ballot and pay for the petitioners who did the work from the donations. We ended up getting our teeth kicked in at the polls on the measure, because it didn’t pay for any campaign, sadly, but although Chuck got no credit, a new organizing and fundraising tool was designed, and to this day around the country and the world, one can see campaigners with petitions who are also collecting money to support their campaigns, though often they don’t carry the classic covered tennis ball can, and for darned sure they don’t credit Chuck or ACORN on their merry and important work.

Where there a will, there’s a way in organizing, and in these cases where there was a will, we were lucky that there was a Wilbur.