Tax Referendums May Understate Economic Impact on Homeowners

When voting April 5th on local tax referendums, voters in ten Cook County communities may get the impression that any increase on their property-tax bills will be only about a third of the actual increase…

When voting April 5th on local tax referendums, voters in ten Cook County communities may get the impression that any increase on their property-tax bills will be only about a third of the actual increase.

Taxing agencies are required to say on the ballot how much any proposed tax increase will raise property owners’ tax bills per $100,000 in home value. But Ali ElSaffar, the Oak Park township assessor and the president of the Cook County Township Assessors Association, says that, because of the wording in a 2006 amendment to the pertinent statute, taxing bodies haven’t been stating the full impact of their referendums.

Cook County calculates the property tax on residential property by taking 10 percent of a property’s assessed value and multiplying that amount by an established equalizer—which now is about 3.3701. That sum is then multiplied by the current tax rate to get the total tax bill. The problem, ElSaffar says, is that the amended statute does not specifically mention using the equalizer, so referendums, generally written with help from an outside law firm, wind up understating the economic impact.

Funding referendums are on the April 5th ballot for the Riverside-Brookfield High School and for elementary school districts in Wilmette, Prospect Heights, Northfield, Oak Forest, and Oak Park. There are also referendums for park districts in Olympia Fields and Lansing, as well as the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling and the Palos Fire Protection District in southern Cook County.

After a voter questioned the language on the referendum ballot statement for Oak Park District 97 earlier this month, ElSaffar went over it for the Wednesday Journal newspaper and determined that the figures did not factor in the 3.3701 equalizer. ElSaffar then found the same thing on the ballot statements of the nine other referendums. “Voters are being told that they’ll pay about 30 percent of what they actually will pay if the referendum passes,” he said.

Lynda Given, a partner with Chapman and Cutler, the law firm that helped District 67 write its ballot statement, told the Wednesday Journal that her firm understands the statute as not requiring use of the equalizer. (Given did not return calls for this story, nor did Shawn Flaherty, the attorney at Ottosen Britz who worked with the Palos fire district on its ballot statement.)

ElSaffar does not believe any taxing body with a referendum is intentionally understating the tax to fool voters. “They’re following the advice of their attorneys on what the ballot statement is supposed to say,” he says.

While they don’t necessarily agree with ElSaffar’s reading of the statute, taxing bodies are acting quickly to clear up any confusion. District 67 materials in support of the referendum all use a more accurate estimate of the tax increase. Wilmette District 39 has issued a statement clarifying the difference between the numbers it is circulating and the numbers that voters will see on the ballot. And Steven Carr, chief of the Palos fire district, points out the disparity when speaking to community groups about the referendum. “I tell them, ‘We are required by state statute to prepare a certain figure for the ballot, but it’s not accurate,’” he says. “And I give them the figure that is correct.”

Nevertheless, both Carr and ElSaffar worry that less-involved voters who only get an estimated effect of the referendum will feel cheated later when their bills go higher than expected. “For any agency of government to ask people to open their pocketbooks right now is difficult,” Carr says. “You want them to trust you to be an open-books organization, but this sort of thing does make people think government isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do.”

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