Saturday, September 23, 2006

Many fall tax-increase requests in question

The following article appeared in the Daily Herald September 21, 2006. The follow up article below the first article appeared in the Daily Herald September 22 , 2006.

The best solution solution to the problem is to vote no on the referenda in question and to replace fiscally irresponsible school board members as soon as possible. Members of each community with referenda in question should go to the appropriate courts and ask the ballot questions be removed from the November 7th ballots.

Many fall tax-increase requests in question

Some referendums in November election won’t be giving correct cost estimates

By Jeffrey Gaunt and Catherine Edman
Daily Herald Staff Writers
Posted Thursday, September 21, 2006

Judges — not voters — may cast some of the deciding votes in the November election.

New revisions intended to close loopholes in the state’s property tax cap and make tax-increase costs clearer for voters have been misunderstood or erroneously communicated, and many ballot questions are now in doubt.

A Daily Herald review of 18 fall ballot questions found more than half the requests for tax-rate increases in the suburbs were worded incorrectly.

An attorney with the Illinois State Board of Elections said Wednesday his office has been fielding calls from around the state about ballot errors that may invalidate many fall requests for tax-rate increases.

Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.

“I can see a judicial challenge as to whether the questions can be put in place after the election,” said Steve Sturm, the state election board’s legal counsel. “It will be up to a judge, or perhaps a series of judges.”

State lawmakers rewrote the tax cap law to ensure voters knew the true cost of tax-increase requests. But different interpretations of the revised law mean voters in many taxing districts still won’t have accurate information on the ballot when they head to the polls.

Several ballot questions could face legal challenges this year, including:
•A $1.35 rate-increase request in Big Hollow District 38.
•A 38-cent rate-increase request in Lincolnshire-Prairieview District 103.
•An 85-cent rate-increase request in East Aurora District 131.
•A 20-cent rate-increase request in the Bartlett Fire Protection District.
•And a 13-cent rate-increase request in the Roselle Fire Protection District.

In all five cases, the cost estimates printed on the ballot — as now required by law — are calculated differently than the method used by Chapman and Cutler partner Dan Johnson, who drafted the legislation.

The worst difference the errors would make to owners of $100,000 homes is $500 over four years, in the East Aurora school district case.

Chapman and Cutler is one of the largest law firms in Illinois serving public bodies on tax and finance issues.
Johnson didn’t review the calculations used in those specific cases. But he did say that if the calculations are different, it won’t necessarily invalidate the ballot questions.

“I’m not the law,” Johnson said. “But I’m not sure a $60 difference, that wasn’t intentional, is the sort of thing that invalidates the proposition.

“That’s not to say it’s right,” he said. “Any new law that is highly technical in its nature can lead to different interpretations, without anyone intending to mislead anyone.”

Despite the confusion, advocates of the legislation say when applied correctly, the revisions should still serve to better inform voters and reduce or eliminate the hidden costs of tax-rate increases.

“Any new law will require some back and forth in the implementation to make sure that we get it right,” said state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who sponsored the legislation with state Rep. Mike Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican.

“I’m glad that we’re fighting over how best to disclose information to voters, rather than whether to disclose key information to the voters at all.”

A summer seminar on the new ballot measures — led by Chapman and Cutler’s Lynda Given and Lake County Director of Tax Extension Wayne Wasylko — serves as an example of how problems developed.

Officials in Lincolnshire-Prairie View Elementary District 103 attended the seminar to learn about the revamped law and how districts should word their fall ballot questions.

District 103 Superintendent Larry Fleming said it was there he was given a detailed packet of information explaining the data and calculations needed to word ballot questions.

But Wasylko said Wednesday those packets, prepared by Chapman and Cutler, were wrong, although he didn’t find out until later when he saw ballot questions from other school districts.
Fleming didn’t find out at all until asked about the ballot wording this week by the Daily Herald.

“What I find interesting is that my business manager and I, and our law firm — each of us in separate training by Chapman and Cutler — got the same information,” Fleming said.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Chapman and Cutler defended their handling of tax cap law changes.

“Chapman and Cutler is confident that every taxing district that has sought our direct advice on their specific ballot proposition has been provided a consistent and accurate interpretation of the law,” the firm said.

Either way, District 103 officials said they’ll now need to explain to taxpayers why the ballot question doesn’t necessarily mean what it says.

And that obviously presents its own set of challenges, Fleming said.

“I think it’s up to us to describe it,” he said.

Voters’ ballots to stay wrong
Clerk says incorrect wording on tax hikes can’t be stopped
By Lee Filas and Bob Susnjara
Daily Herald Staff Writers
Posted Friday, September 22, 2006

Lake County Clerk Willard Helander said incorrectly worded tax-rate increase questions will remain on the Nov. 7 ballot, despite calls for their removal.

Helander said unless a judge issues an injunction, voters will have to decide whether to support tax increase requests in Big Hollow Elementary District 38 and Lincolnshire-Prairie View Elementary District 103.

“We have no authority to stop the ballots,” she said. “The ballots are printed and we are starting absentee voting, so short of a judge telling me to (remove the questions), we don’t have the authority to do it.”

At issue are legislative revisions intended to close loopholes in the state property tax cap referendum law and clarify costs to voters. But different interpretations of that law caused incorrect formulas to be released to school districts before filing referendum questions with the Lake County Clerk.

The formula was later clarified by Chapman and Cutler, the law firm that helped write the legislation, but not in time to prevent districts from listing incorrect cost figures in their ballot questions.

Chapman and Cutler is one of Illinois’ largest law firms serving public bodies on tax and finance issues.
Attorneys at the state board of elections speculate that should incorrectly worded questions pass, they could be challenged in court and possibly overturned.

Political activist Jack Martin of Libertyville, who’s fighting tax hike proposals in districts 38 and 103, said Helander
shouldn’t allow erroneous ballots to go before voters in November if she is aware of problems now.

“I’m surprised,” said Martin, who heads Taxpayers for Good Government. “Who’s at fault? Who made the mistake? The individual school districts?”

Among the incorrectly worded questions in Lake County are those on the ballot in districts 38 and 103.

Mundelein High School District 120 has a 24-cent tax-rate increase on the ballot, but that question is worded correctly, officials said.

District 38 is asking voters to approve a tax-rate increase of $1.35 per $100 of equalized assessed valuation. According to the ballot, the owner of a $100,000 home would see an increase of $450 in the first year, if approved.

But wording that follows is incorrect. It states the owner of the same home, who receives an average 6.1 percent increase in market value, would pay increases of $477 in 2007, $506 in 2008 and $537 in 2009.

The corrected calculations show that the homeowner would see the tax rise $514 in 2007, $582 in 2008 and $655 in 2009.

District 38 Superintendent Ron Pazanin and board President Vicki Gallechio did not return phone calls Thursday.

The same situation occurred at District 103.

That ballot question states the district wants a 38-cent tax-rate increase. In the first year, the owner of a $100,000 home would — correctly — see an increase of $127.

But the question states the owner of the same home with a 5.2 percent increase in home values would see their property taxes rise $133 in 2007, $140 in 2008 and $148 in 2009. The correct figures should be $163 in 2007, $201 in 2008 and $241 in 2009.

Helander said dollar totals on the ballots should not be considered etched in stone, especially three years down the road.

“If you talk about the approximate impact on future years, those are nothing but educated guesses anyway,” she said.
“It’s just there for an example. It’s all guestimated.”

District 103 Superintendent Larry Fleming said he believes the referendum figures were correct as of Thursday, and the issue will be studied further.

Larry Rivkin, co-chairman of the pro-tax increase group Residents to Preserve 103, said he’s confident all will be OK by Election Day.

“This is obviously a new (referendum) law and very complicated,” Rivkin said, “and people will need to work through it.”

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