At a Sept. 22 regular meeting, the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 board voted unanimously, if somewhat grudgingly, to enter into a settlement agreement with the Village of Oak Park and District 97 that allows the village to use funds from the Downtown Tax Increment Finance District to cover the cost of cleaning up a contaminated development site.
Earlier this year, construction planning on Elevate Oak Park, an apartment and retail development on Lake Street near Harlem, was delayed after testing found leaking petroleum tanks beneath the site that required environmental cleanup costing up to $3 million.
A 2011 legal settlement hammered out between the village and the two school districts requires all three taxing bodies sign off on any unplanned uses of Downtown TIF funds. District 97 was scheduled to vote on whether or not to approve the expenditure at a Sept. 27 meeting scheduled to take place after press time.
D200 board member Steve Gevinson said the unforeseen cleanup expenses would cost the high school district more than $700,000 in TIF surplus funds it may have realized had the cleanup costs not come up.
Gevinson said he wouldn’t have voted for the settlement agreement if school district officials hadn’t also voted on a second amendment to the 2011 agreement, which would require the village to declare as surplus the $1.2 million that remains of the 2014 Downtown TIF funds after the $3 million cleanup costs are covered.
Any 2014 TIF funds not included in that $1.2 million surplus would be distributed to the taxing bodies. In addition, the second amendment requires the three taxing bodies to open an escrow account out of which TIF surplus distributions would be made quarterly.
The amendment, said D200 Board President Jeff Weissglass, came after heads of the three taxing bodies met to discuss the $3 million cleanup cost.
Weissglass said, while he wishes the village would have found ways to pass the cleanup costs off to the developer, he still values the village board’s judgement and felt that village officials “had to make the best decisions they could at the time.”
Gevinson, however, wasn’t as generous in his remarks, calling the decision to fund the cleanup “a $3 million mistake,” adding that the village “is using TIF to spread the consequences of their mistake to other Oak Park taxing bodies.”
Gevinson said cutting into school districts’ share of TIF surplus funds “should not be a standard strategy of the village for correcting actions that have unanticipated financial consequences.”