Along with the $3.3 million District 200 is seeking from the village, OPRF also wants a detailed accounting of how village hall has used TIF dollars – dating all the way back to 1983.

OPRF feels that the village has misused TIF money over the years, for expenses that aren’t eligible under the state laws. So OPRF is asking a judge to force village hall to open up its books and show how the money has been spent ever since the downtown TIF was launched in 1983.

The village is saying that it doesn’t have the money to meet its obligations to local taxing bodies, but OPRF needs to see proof, said Cheryl Witham, chief financial officer for the high school.

“What they’re alleging is that there isn’t money there to pay the obligation, so we’re looking for an accounting of that,” Witham said.

In the past, it has been reported the village was using TIF dollars for what some argued weren’t TIF-eligible expenses – such as paying the salaries of Oak Park police officers working as beat cops within the TIF district. At the time, the village argued that it was correct in spending about $300,000 from the TIF on police salaries.

Village Manager Tom Barwin believes that OPRF’s accounting request is far too burdensome. His staff would have to work countless overtime hours to meet the “absurd” and “insane” demand.

He wants OPRF to specify when the village has misused TIF funds. The village would be open to pulling its files to prove itself if the high school would point to an explicit instance, he said.

“Don’t create this witch hunt, fishing expedition where we have to look at every piece of paper related to anything to do with the central business district dating all the way back to 1983,” Barwin said.

Witham declined to respond to the village’s assertion that it would be too difficult to do an accounting of the TIF expenses back to 1983. She pointed to the past allegations in 2005 that the village was improperly using TIF dollars for administrative costs, and said OPRF needs assurance that those practices have ceased.

Barwin believes the accounting request might be more reasonable if OPRF was struggling to pay its own expenses. However, he said, the high school will have $83 million in reserve at the end of its 2010 fiscal year, compared to $62 million in expenses. In contrast, village hall had $2 million in the bank on about $40 million in expenses at the end of 2009.

“This is scandalous; this is soaking the taxpayer, big time,” Barwin said. “It needs to stop. Maybe they ought to be thinking about refunds to Oak Park taxpayers, but instead they’re suing a sister government to add even more.”

But the village owes OPRF TIF money, regardless of the high school’s financial position, Witham said. And the money is also owed to District 97, the park district, township and library.

OPRF has been accruing large fund balances as part of a long-term plan, which it has been “exceptionally transparent” about, Witham said. The school is “tax capped” under state laws, and is building its reserves, planning to spend them down over the next eight years before looking at a possible referendum in 2018, after the TIF expires.

“We’re counting on the revenue that was promised; this is about an intergovernmental agreement,” Witham said of the owed TIF money. “Yes, it’s true that District 200 has been fiscally sound and prudent, but that doesn’t mean it should be penalized.”

-Marty Stempniak

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