The Village of Oak Park hosted a public meeting last week to talk about its three tax increment financing districts, one of which is the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit now working its way through the courts.
Meanwhile, officials from District 97, District 200 and the village have continued meeting privately to try and reach a settlement in the lawsuit. All parties involved have agreed not to talk about those behind-the-scenes negotiations to the press.
Village Manager Tom Barwin said that three meetings have occurred so far between districts 97, 200 and village hall, with at least a few more to follow. Some members of the school boards have characterized the talks as “settlement negotiations,” while Barwin labeled them more as “communication sessions.”
“What’s really happening is I think everyone is going through the agreement and their interpretations and formulas and rationales,” he said. “The hopeful result is this whole matter will be brought to closure without additional protracted court involvement and legal fees.”
At the very outset, a series of five or six meetings were scheduled in the process, over the course of two months. The parties hope they can wrap things up within 30 days, according to Barwin. He declined to discuss specifics of the get-togethers.
“None of us who are involved are supposed to talk about any of the details of the meetings,” he said. “Not without having to experience the ire of all other parties.”
Craig Lesner, chief financial officer for the village, deferred comment to elected officials. And Trustee John Hedges, who has been attending the meetings, said, “They’re happening, that’s all I can say.”
Village President David Pope feels the meetings are a step in the right direction.
“It’s certainly a good thing that we are talking face to face, but at this point I think it’s important that we all respect the confidentiality of these discussions to see if it’s going to be possible to reach an understanding,” he said. “Certainly, no one believes that the lawsuit is the best way to resolve this issue, and I’m hopeful that we may be able to resolve it through dialogue.”
Two members of the District 200 board are said to be attending those closed meetings. John Allen could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning, and District 200 Chief Financial Officer Cheryl. Witham was out of town. Board member Amy McCormack declined to comment on specifics.
“I have to honor the agreement that we established, which is that we would keep details confidential,” she said. “I really think it is important to the integrity of the process, and I have to abide by that.”
District 97 board President Peter Traczyk could not be reached for comment on Tuesday morning, while board member Bob Spatz said, “I’m not going to comment on progress or no progress.”
The “Joint Review Board” of parties interested in the TIF also convened last week. It’s an annual powwow, though that has not always been the case. The purpose is to bring together the governmental bodies which are a party to the TIFs for an update on the status of how the three TIFs were used in the previous year. Attendees included elementary school District 97 and high school District 200, which sued the village earlier this year, seeking $3.3 million in tax money it alleges it is owed.
The village reviewed the 2009 financial reports for the Harlem/Garfield, Madison and Downtown TIFs. A TIF is a fund created by freezing property taxes in a specified geographic district at a certain level. Increases in future tax revenues above that amount are funneled into the TIF for use in development and infrastructure projects designed to increase economic development.
Some of the major expenditures from Oak Park’s Downtown TIF last year included $1.5 million in distributions to other taxing bodies, $1.4 million in debt payments, $1.2 million to demolish a couple of buildings on Lake Street, a $350,000 payout to the developer that built the Whiteco building, and $148,000 to the law firm of Neal & Leroy.