Behind the scenes of drafting D97's referendum question

Opinion: Columns

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Jack Crowe

There is a good reason why our local governments do not communicate in plain English: lawyers.

Here are some of the exact words from the District 97 tax increase referendum, which I am told comport strictly with Illinois law: "Shall the limiting rate under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law for Oak Park Elementary School District Number 97, Cook County, Illinois, be increased by an additional amount equal to .374% above the limiting rate for any purpose of said School District for levy year 2009 and be equal to 2.600% of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein for levy year 2010?"

Capiche? Me neither. I have no idea what this language is talking about. And I don't blame the school district. It has been transparent about what the tax increase really means. But to understand why the lawyers wrote it this way, we need to get the inside scoop from the lawyers themselves. The discussion might have gone something like this.

"Franky," says Joey. "We got a call from District 97. They want referendum language."

So Franky says, "But we don't make any money drafting referendum language. Its like, 'Hey, we're going to raise your taxes,' and boom we're done."

And Joey says, "Not the way I do it. To do this right, we need a specialist. What's the name of that first-year associate? The one who's been drafting credit card agreements for the last year?"

And Franky says, "But she doesn't know anything about election law."

And Joey goes: "Exactly. We give her the assignment, she works for two weeks and then comes up with something that uses lots of fancy words that she found in 100-year-old law books. You know, things like 'therein' and 'said school district.'"

And Franky goes: "I get it, maybe she can throw in references to obscure laws too. How about this one, the 'Property Tax Extension Limitation Law.'"

"Oh, that's very good," says Joey. "But she needs some percentages too. That always makes us look smart."

"Smart is when you use percentages drawn out to the third degree," says Franky. "It needs to be something like .374 percent or 2.600 percent. The more decimal points the better."

"Franky, you're killing me. But we need big words too. Words normal people don't know. That's why we get paid the big bucks."

And Franky says, "It's a tax referendum so throw in 'levy year' a bunch of times. Just to be tricky, add some words that mean the opposite of what people think.

Joey: "Like?"

Franky: "Like 'limiting rate.' Get it? We're raising taxes, but we're calling it a limiting rate."

Joey: "Oh man are you good."

Franky: "And try this one on: The approximate amount of taxes extendable at the most recently extended limiting rate is blah, blah, blah."

Joey: "Stop. I can't take any more."

Franky: "And for all this excellent legal work we bill?"

Joey: "Geez. Twenty or 30 grand, at least. That, of course, includes the consulting we'll have to do with the client when they get questions from outraged voters."

Franky: "I love my job."

Joey: "I love my job too."

Reader Comments

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JennyWren from Oak Park  

Posted: April 4th, 2011 2:19 PM

What Jack makes is not an issue. Unlike Oak Park leadership, maybe he has some empathy for those of us who are paying more than 15% of our incomes in OP taxes, have no kids, and have already sacrificed all discretionery income for schools that think we can get a raise from our employers whenever taxes go up.


Posted: March 31st, 2011 11:11 AM

Actually, if your averages are correct for his formal salary level, he made more in one year than an average D97 teacher makes in 10 years!

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 31st, 2011 12:20 AM

Well, Frank, in THIS piece Jack is making fun of his own kind, so we can hardly fault him for that. I will agree, though, that when he complains that teachers make too much money, it is difficult to take it seriously when he made more in one year than teachers make in five years.

Frank Vozak from Oak Park. IL  

Posted: March 31st, 2011 12:01 AM

Any commentary Jack makes should be seen through the filter of a man who billed between $250 to $600/ billable hour averaging 3000 hours / year. Being a partner in major law firm allows one the freedom to retire in comfort at age 58 He then has the time to lecture the rest of us who never saw that kind of opulance on why we should support any of the many positions he espouses. Unfortunately few of us have that kind financial flexibility. Retirement is delayed or limited or we are priced out.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 30th, 2011 11:31 PM

Actually, Curious, Jack used to be a partner at the law firm of Winston & Strawn. I also am a lawyer, and though Jack takes the matter to comical extremes, I think he has tapped into to what all too frequently happens in large law firms.


Posted: March 30th, 2011 9:04 AM

I bet you don't have any attorney friends (at least, not anymore)!

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