Three Oak Park governmental bodies — which have spent $424,075 on legal fees arguing in front of a judge — took another crack at solving things out of court on Monday.
Oak Park and River Forest High School, village hall and elementary school District 97 held the second “mediation” session earlier this week, hoping to resolve a tiff over how much the village allegedly owes from its tax increment financing district.
The three sides met with mediator and former judge Julia Nowicki for almost 12 hours Monday, at a cost of $500 per hour.
Village President David Pope and Trustee John Hedges showed up to Monday’s board meeting two hours late because of the marathon mediation session. And afterward, the board retreated to a closed-door powwow, which Hedges confirmed was to discuss the ongoing lawsuit.
Both declined to elaborate on what happened during those 12 hours. Hedges said it’s possible there may be a third mediation session, but it was unclear as of Monday night. The three sides in the argument have agreed to keep the content of the discussions private until the matter is resolved
“The judge has reiterated the importance of not talking about it, so I’m not going to talk about it,” Pope said Monday night.
OPRF Superintendent Steven Isoye was on vacation this week, and could not be reached for comment. But the high school’s board president, Dietra Millard, issued a brief statement Tuesday, saying its board plans to meet Saturday to “discuss options and future steps.” She, too, stressed the importance of keeping the discussions confidential.
District 97 Superintendent Al Roberts did not immediately respond to an email on Monday night. But before the mediation session, he expressed optimism that the dispute would end soon.
“I remain hopeful that the two real parties in this case will settle,” Roberts said through email. “District 97 never initiated legal action, nor did we wish to be part of this unfortunate disagreement.”
Village Manager Tom Barwin, too, said beforehand that he hoped Monday would be the beginning of the end.
“The sooner we all put this behind all of us, the better it is for the community. I can’t even estimate the amount of time, resources and energy that this case has taken,” he said.
The dispute centers on how much village hall owes the two school districts from its controversial downtown TIF, which funnels a percentage of property tax dollars away from schools and other taxing bodies. The TIF fund was 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.
In its latest court filing, the high school, which filed the lawsuit, pegs the amount it’s owed as more than $2 million. The village and District 97 came to a congenial settlement more than a year ago.
Barwin has frequently lambasted the high school for having more than $80 million in its reserves, and suing village hall for more. Since it doesn’t make sense to sue over a couple more million, Barwin said, he believes the high school is trying to prematurely end the TIF, which is set to expire in 2018.
“I’m coming around to that feeling, yeah,” Barwin said. “Because of what’s happened in Chicago and the publicity that has followed some of the Chicago projects and practices, TIFs generally have a bad name. But this TIF is doing the work that it was set up to do.”
Superintendent Isoye and Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham, in recent interviews, have declined to confirm or deny whether their lawsuit is to end the downtown TIF. Witham did not return a call Friday seeking comment.