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Dist. 97 board: Referendum lawsuit ‘has no merit’

The Oak Park Elementary District 97 board has responded to a lawsuit filed to halt the implementation of a tax increase, saying the litigation will do nothing more than “waste valuable time, energy and money.”

Taxpayers United of America, an anti-tax group based in Chicago, and Oak Parker Noel Kuriakos, who led the charge against the District 97 tax hike, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court in an attempt to nullify the April tax increase, which won support from 55 percent of voters in April.

The group alleges the board knowingly and willfully misled the public on how much the tax increase would cost the taxpayers. Before the election, Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar said the ballot language for District 97, as well as all other referendums in Cook County, underestimated the financial impact. He said the ballot language lacked the so-called “state equalizer,” which ultimately raises the final tax bill.

Law firm Chapman and Cutler, which calculated the estimates while representing District 97 and other taxing bodies, did not include the state’s equalizer, a measure applied to Cook County assessments each year to ensure they match up assessments in other areas of the state, ElSaffar said. By not including that factor, he said, the ballot made the increases appear much lower than what taxpayers would experience.

For example, in Oak Park, the ballot said the impact on a home with $100,000 of market value would be $37.40, but ElSaffar said the number should have been $126.04 if the equalizer was applied. At the time, district and law firm representatives said the equalizer was not used because it was not in the law.

Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America, questions the motivation.

“It wasn’t a mistake,” Tobin said. “It was intentional to mislead the voters.”

District officials have maintained they were following the advice of legal counsel.  District officials did not use the ballot language in any official communications, opting for a different calculation — an increase of $38 per $1,000 in existing property taxes — in all information disseminated to the public.

The law offers some protection for districts when it comes to miscalculations, especially if they are deemed unintentional, said ElSaffar, who believes district officials were not trying to mislead voters, especially because they released additional information. Andrew Spiegel, the attorney representing the anti-tax group, dismissed the idea that the voters were aware of the discrepancy because of media coverage and district communications.

“That information wasn’t on the ballot,” he said. “Voter intent is a big issue. I believe most of the people who voted were unaware there was any supplemental information.”

In the Monday statement, the board reiterates that it was simply following the law and used alternate financial information when communicating with voters. Even at the time of the approval of the ballot language, board members called it “confusing” and opted for a different figure in communications to voters, a figure agreed upon with ElSaffar.

“The allegation that the district misled voters has no merit,” the board said. “We followed the advice of our bond counsel in writing the ballot, which complied with the law as it is written.”

The district will now have to defend itself in a potentially expensive lawsuit. This is the second high-profile lawsuit the district finds itself in, after it was dragged in as an unwilling participant in the tax increment finance district funds dispute between Oak Park and River Forest High School and the Village of Oak Park.

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