The following article appeared in the Chicago Tribune
Residents' trust, votes are at issue
By Grace Aduroja
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 17, 2006
Dan Denys supported the tax referendum measure four years ago in Naperville School District 203, and then his tax bill came.
Based on campaign estimates, he had calculated that his annual tax bill would increase about $1,200 over five years. Instead, it jumped by $1,800 within four years.
The unexpected increase led him to believe the school campaign had been deceptive, but district officials say their projections were accurate based on information that was available before the election. The higher amount was due to quirks in state law, they said.
"I think people are essentially victims of this process," said Denys, a financial adviser for school districts throughout the Chicago area. "It's not like these are some dictators pulling money out of us; these are our neighbors, these are people that we elect."
A growing number of suburban residents are expressing skepticism similar to Denys' during this tax referendum season. Districts from Hinsdale to Huntley have been accused of taking more money than promised during referendum campaigns.
And that has caused problems in other school systems where residents are apprehensive about approving tax increases that school officials say they need to close financial shortfalls and fund construction projects.
"I think people want to be sure that you're going to do what you say you're doing," said Stephen Berry, co-interim superintendent for Glenbard High School District 87, which is asking voters for a 5-cent tax rate increase.
One cause of the perceived dishonesty is a loophole in Illinois law that allows schools to approve a tax increase for one fund, such as education, but put some of the money into other accounts, such as transportation. But when it's time to figure the tax rate the next year, only the portion of the money in the fund for which it was approved counts toward that increase, so the district can raise the tax rate again to make up the difference.
For example, if a homeowner paying $1,000 in school taxes voted in favor of an increase that amounted to $30, he could pay $1,030 in taxes the next year. But if only $10 of that $30 increase went into the fund for which the increase was approved, the district could add on an additional $20 the following year, making that homeowner's bill $1,050. This process could be spread out over five years.
Also, taxpayers might unwittingly vote themselves out from under the protection of the state's tax-cap law, which is designed to keep taxes relatively steady even as home values soar. The law prohibits increases in a tax bill of more than the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower, unless voters approve. Voters who approve a referendum measure increasing the tax rate could find themselves paying that total rate even on a home whose value has increased dramatically.
"Essentially ... you're suspending the operation of the tax cap for five years," said state Rep. Mike Tryon (R-Crystal Lake). "Some districts don't do that."
But others do. Such was the case in Huntley District 158, where taxpayers approved a 55-cent increase that could end up costing them more than double that amount. When the dust settled, the superintendent resigned, another administrator took an early retirement and three new board members were elected.
"What's happening is that parent groups go out and sell a referendum and then they look like idiots because they put their credibility on the line," Tryon said.
But education advocates stress that not every school system has accessed the additional money--even though it's not unlawful to do so.
"What's unfortunate is that we're all lumped into one size fits all," said Peg Agnos, executive director of LEND, the Legislative Education Network of DuPage, a group that represents county schools.
"This is all within the letter of the law. It's unfortunate that it's occurred because of the quirks in property tax law."
Still, residents hit with startling tax bills have been livid.
Some districts have gone so far as to halt the collection of surplus funds. In an emotional meeting last year, the Hinsdale Elementary School District 181 board voted to return to the spirit of the referendum campaign. Naperville District 203 agreed this year to abide by the tax-cap formula.
But the resulting strife can be detrimental elsewhere. Several opposition groups have been campaigning against referendum measures in Carpentersville District 300, which is near the Huntley school system.
"We help people defeat referenda," said Cathy Peschke, co-founder of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes, a McHenry Country group that opposes the proposals in District 300. "[Districts] are not being honest with voters. I think it's really deceptive tactics."
The way that referendum requests are worded on ballots also has contributed to the confusion.
Tryon is sponsoring a bill that would make it difficult for districts to take the additional funds by making the ballot language more specific.
"You need a mechanism as a voter to go in that ballot box and know how this is going to affect you," he said. "We're talking about people's money and we're talking substantial dollars."
But not all residents doubt their districts. Robin Church supports a measure in Aurora-based Indian Prairie District 204--which is next door to Naperville District 203--because she's crunched the numbers.
"I've done far more research on my own," Church said. "I don't anticipate any surprises."