Oak Park's village hall and the two local school districts have been battling it out over money in court for more than a year. And since February 2010, the three taxing bodies have racked up $424,075 in legal fees.
The numbers on that meter will keep spinning next week, as village hall, Oak Park and River Forest High School, and elementary school District 97 plan to sit in front of an independent mediator. There, Julia Nowicki will charge $500 an hour, trying to help the three sides resolve the longstanding dispute.
Village Manager Tom Barwin says it won't be a moment too soon.
"I'll just be glad when it's over," he said. "It's probably the most disappointing and inexplicable situation I've ever bumped up against in 30 years of public administration."
Mediation is slated for Wednesday, June 22, in Nowicki's offices in the Loop. Village Attorney Ray Heise expects the powwow to take all day, and be attended by the head administrators, lawyers, financial officers and two elected officials representing each governmental body. The meeting is closed to the public and officials were unsure when taxpayers might find out the results.
OPRF first sued village hall in February 2010, in a dispute over how much the village allegedly owes the high school from its controversial downtown Oak Park tax increment financing district. The TIF district was set to expire several years ago, but the village and schools inked a deal in 2003 to extend its life to 2018.
While the village and District 97 long ago came to a financial deal on the TIF, the elementary schools were added as a defendant in the lawsuit last summer, since it also signed the 2003 agreement.
The three sides have been loath to publicly discuss the details of the dispute, as they've agreed to try and resolve things in private and away from media glare. But recent court filings shed some light on what the three sides are fighting over.
Oak Park started its downtown tax increment financing district in 1983. The TIF is a fund created by freezing property taxes at a certain level and using future tax revenues above that amount for development and infrastructure projects in a designated area.
As part of the 2003 TIF extension, Oak Park was supposed to "carve" properties out of the TIF each year, funneling their property taxes back to the schools and other taxing bodies. But OPRF says the village failed to make those carve outs in 2007 to 2009, amounting to at least another $50,000 owed to the school.
And OPRF says in court documents that, under the agreement, if property values in downtown Oak Park grew more than originally predicted, the high school should get a cut, amounting to about $1.5 million. The high school also believes that the TIF improperly collected more than it should have, after OPRF raised taxes in 2005, resulting in another $528,000 allegedly owed.
On the other side, the village says in court documents that OPRF's referendum was passed in 2002, before the TIF was renewed, and thus, the village doesn't owe the $528,000. And Oak Park argues that the contract gave the village the option of paying out cash, rather than carving out properties. Such a practice is more beneficial to District 97, since it doesn't lose state funding when it collects cash from the TIF.
"D97 has a very clear opinion that they prefer cash," said Craig Lesner, Oak Park's chief financial officer. He said the village decided to stop making carve outs in 2007.
District 97 board President Peter Barber could not be reached for comment on Monday. In an emailed statement, Superintendent Al Roberts said he's looking forward to trying to settle the lawsuit out of court (the district has spent $47,721 in legal fees).
"We continue to contend that talking about it outside the courtroom is the most prudent, timely and fiscally responsible way to resolve it," Roberts said.
OPRF Superintendent Steven Isoye declined to comment on the particulars of the suit, but said he, too, hopes mediation helps bring things to an end.
"We're heading into mediation in hopes that this will be the point at which we'll be able to settle," Isoye said.
OPRF Board President Dee Millard could not be reached for comment Monday. The school has spent $132,827 on legal fees related to the dispute.
Village hall has spent the most, though, at $245,527. Officials say the large tally is because it's a highly specialized arena of law, and it requires much more time and manpower to defend yourself in court, rather than being the plaintiff.
Village President David Pope said village hall would discuss the lawsuit in any forum that doesn't involve wasting "buckets and buckets of taxpayer dollars on lawyers."
"This should have been resolved with reasonable and rational people sitting down at a table and working through it," he said. "It's a profound waste of public resources."
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