Property owners in Oak Park and River Forest, whose high tax bills are the stuff of lore, can anticipate some significant relief in the near future from the two local governments that take in the bulk of that property tax revenue — Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200.
Officials in both districts last week touted millions in tax abatements that they’ve issued in recent years. District 200 officials said that if they receive funding from a new state grant designed to provide tax relief for high-taxed districts — which they believe is likely — area taxpayers can anticipate even more savings.
Recently, school boards in both districts passed estimated tax levies for 2018 that keep pace with the 2.1 percent rate growth in the Consumer Price Index.
During a regular meeting on Dec. 20, D200 officials said that the 2.1 percent 2018 levy increase could generate another $1.4 million in tax revenues to the district, increasing the annual taxes of a home valued at $400,000 by around $68.
District 97 officials said that the district’s 2.1 percent increase doesn’t include an additional .84 percent increase in tax revenue from the growth in taxable property values due to new construction. The 2.95 percent increase reflects an increase of $2 million over the roughly $71 million levy extension approved in 2017.
District 200 board member Tom Cofsky said earlier this month that between 2011 and 2017, the district “has levied $32.2 million less than it was entitled to receive under the law and instead depleted approximately 20 percent of its fund balance reserve to cover operating deficits.”
And according to District 97 board President Holly Spurlock, district officials have given back more than $6 million to taxpayers ever since discovering that it would receive $2.6 million of unanticipated extra revenue as a result of the successful referendum on April 4, 2017. The extra money was, in part, the result of a communication mishap between D97 officials and the Cook County Clerk’s Office.
At the time, the district considered a variety of ways to return the money, including the possibility of mailing out refund checks to residents. Most of those strategies, however, proved costly and unfeasible.
“The abatement strategy has been the most appealing, because it doesn’t have any collateral consequences that could limit future board options for responding to some unexpected crisis from the state, whether it be pension issues or something else that comes up,” Spurlock said in a recent interview.
Spurlock and Paul Starck-King, D97’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said that the district has also avoided issuing up to $16 million in bonds related to capital projects — an action that translates into fewer debt payments for taxpayers, they said.
“There has been a delay in the Holmes construction, which provided us a little bit of flexibility with our [bonding] authority,” Spurlock said. “We’re taking advantage of that to benefit the taxpayer.”
District 200 officials said that they’re hopeful they can receive money from a new state grant program that carves out $50 million in the state’s 2019 budget for the purpose of providing tax relief to high-taxed school districts. The state prioritizes districts based on their respective tax burdens. District 200, officials said, ranked 15th on the state’s priority list.
The D200 school board approved the district’s grant application at a Dec. 20 regular meeting. With the approval, the board “is telling the state that you’re willing to lower taxes by $5.8 million, and in turn the state will pay the school district $3.75 million [as a reimbursement],” said Rob Grossi, the district’s financial consultant.
District officials said that the new tax abatement will reduce the annual tax bill for owners in a $400,000 market value home by around $280.
“Note that because the district is just one of the local taxing bodies, a property owner’s total tax bill may still increase,” officials said in a statement released Dec. 20.
Grossi said that if D200 receives the grant, that $3.8 million “will be received every year going forward even though the requirement is for” the district to abate roughly $2 million the first year.
District 97 officials said that they also applied for the state grant, but that they’re ranked much lower than OPRF in the state’s priority rankings.
“We are less confident than the high school [of getting the grant money],” said Starck-King, who added that the district still applied “because not applying leaves money on the table.”