High school rachets your taxes minus a referendum

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DAN HALEY

There is a Greek guy down at the County Building. If you think you've heard this one before, you haven't. And when you get your tax bill a year from now, you'll wish you hadn't.

Anyhow, there's this guy, Bill, who interprets tax law and tax rates and tax levies and tax assessments and decides each year whether a school district in Cook County can raise your taxes by the cost of living (that's the tax cap formula), or some other higher amount.

Cheryl Witham, the chief financial officer at Oak Park and River Forest High School, has been making the Bill Pilgrimage annually for several years. Typically she has come home with pennies on the dollar. But this year she hit the trifecta. Bill said OPRF could increase its tax rate by a munificent amount next year, the final year of its so-called "phase-in period" following the 2002 tax referendum being approved.

And once it is raised, folks, it is raised. The high school will collect an additional $6 million a year from Oak Park and River Forest taxpayers for the foreseeable future. That increase will negate any need for the school to come to voters for a referendum?#34;a request several OPRF board members believe would be turned down?#34;until, they say, 2018. The class of 2018, I figure, has just entered kindergarten.

Now I've been misunderstanding the Cook County and state property tax collection system for each of the 25 years I've been in this business. Most certainly there will be some error of fact in this column. But until two months ago I'd never heard the term "phase-in" related to tax referendums. And because I am basically a dull person, I've been asking local and state, elected and appointed officials over past weeks if they had heard of phase-ins. None had until just recently.

I was at a social event last week, ran into State Sen. Don Harmon who is actually sponsoring a bill on phase-ins and who said he had just that very afternoon had what I think he called an "excruciating meeting" on the subject. I asked him if he could explain about Bill, the Greek guy, and what OPRF was doing. And while he knew about Bill Vasulopoulas, he couldn't explain how phase-ins linked to OPRF's situation.

Doesn't much matter, though, because however you explain it, by the end of the month the high school board is most certainly going to pass a measure to increase its call on your wallet by more than $400 per year. Without a referendum.

Now we've reported all this and have heard nary a whimper of pain from readers. Can't explain that. However, on your behalf, some officials at the District 97 elementary schools and at village hall, have been howling discreetly so as to make their worries known without violating the protocol which says, "don't knock my tax levy in public, and I won't knock yours."

Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, the president of the 97 board, did make a general public statement at the close of her board's meeting last week "asking the board to pay attention" to the high school's action and "the way it might impact our environment." Newberry Schwartz said it is her estimate that the elementary schools may be looking at a referendum as early as spring of 2007. It last went for an education fund referendum in 1989.

The high school can make its case on why it needs the money and how its actions are perfectly legal according to Bill. But the amount of the increase and the fear Dist. 200 has of facing voters to ask for it, goes to the issue of how high property taxes in Oak Park can possibly go.

Village President David Pope, who can raise your cellphone tax instead of your property tax, wants a village-wide assessment of the spending priorities among all taxing bodies. With the library, parks, and now the high school on the lush, green side of the tax-hike river, Dist. 97 will sign on to the planning concept and hope there is still time to get one more boat across.

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