Why I got involved with the District 97 referendum

Opinion: Columns

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Ali ElSaffar

Congratulations to school District 97 on its referendum victory. I believe the district won the referendum based on the merits of its argument, and not because of misleading information placed on the referendum ballot. Because of the school district's efforts, along with some help from me and the local press, I believe most voters, whether they supported or opposed the referendum, were aware of how much a successful referendum would cost them on their tax bills, notwithstanding the problems on the ballot.

Now that the divisive referendum campaign is over, I believe there are some things all sides can agree on going forward. First, in a functioning democracy, the information on a ballot should be neutral, and should not tip the scales of an election one way or another. Second, no school district should ever again be put in a position of having to explain why the cost of the referendum appearing on the ballot is substantially lower than the cost it is presenting to voters on the referendum campaign trail.

I have begun discussions with Sen. Don Harmon, school District 97 and other school districts, as well as several township assessors, on ways to change the law on referendums. My goal is to see if we can reach agreement on a way to ensure that future referendum ballots include accurate tax estimates, while also addressing other problems associated with the referendum law that came to light as a result of the recent controversy.

Some of the more passionate supporters of the referendum believed that, in pointing out the misleading figure on the ballot, I was trying to undermine the school district. But my record as township assessor belies such a conclusion. I played an active role in recovering $400,000 for District 97 from an erroneous tax refund in 2004, and in 2007 I played a leading role in helping the district obtain funds from the Madison TIF district to avert a financial crisis. Moreover, my time as township assessor has been marked by persistent efforts to provide accurate information to government officials and citizens about tax issues. Pointing out an error on the ballot relating to taxes is completely consistent with that record.

If blame is to be assessed regarding the problem with the ballot, it should be directed at the lawyers who caused the problem, not the tax official who pointed it out. The law requires that the tax estimate on the ballot be the "approximate amount of the additional tax" a single-family house would pay with a successful referendum. Yet the law firm of Chapman and Cutler interpreted this law in a way that understated the impact of the referendum by as much as 70 percent.

The success or failure of a referendum should be based solely on the merits of the argument of the taxing district proposing it. Unfortunately, the bad legal advice provided by Chapman and Cutler put the firm at the forefront of referendum controversies in Oak Park and elsewhere throughout the county. With better legal advice and clearer laws, I am hopeful that lawyers will return to their proper "behind the scenes" role in future elections.

Ali ElSaffar is the Oak Park Township assessor.

Reader Comments

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OP Resident  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 2:56 PM

Finger pointing by Ali ElSaffer is acceptable in this case. Chapman & Cutler should act in an honorable manner and return the amount paid to them by District 97. This rights a wrong and gets some positive pub for a once respected firm. However, if they choose to keep their fee; Chapman and Cutler must be excluded from receiving tax dollars from any of Oak Park's local taxing bodies.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 12:13 PM

Mr. AliSaffar - Your Letter to Editor is an outstanding example of transparency in government and the responsibility of government officials, elected and staff, to proactively address community concerns. You have set a great example for officials of all taxing bodies.

working class joe  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 10:07 AM

Eduardo: Maybe incompetence may be the wrong word. Would crook or liar be better? How else could somebody say the referendum passed based on the argument rather than the misleading information on the ballot? It is clear that the information on the ballot was wrong - isn't that a lie? I agree with "show some love" - how about underestimating my home worth by 70% and then reducing my taxes? Wouldn't the liberals in OP consider that cheating?

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 8:54 AM

I have always found Ali to be one of the few knowledgeable and accessible sources on property taxes and TIFs. Unfortunately, he seems to be easily influenced by local politics when push comes to shove. Ali did the right thing by initially calling attention to the misleading referendum question, but acquiesced with his subsequent confounding letter of support with D97. Ali did the same thing in Nov. 2006, when he made an equally confounding co-proposal with David Pope re. TIF allocations.

Eduardo from Oak Park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 8:15 AM

I have only dealt with Mr. El Saffar on a few occasions. He was always very professional and knowledgeable. It is unfortunate in my opinion that he didn't continue his run for Cook County Assessor. Obviously working class joe has had a different experience. I am sure working class joe can provide evidence of Mr. El Saffar's incompetence since I don't believe he would just pull that statement out of his you know you what.


Posted: April 20th, 2011 11:40 PM

Well said!


Posted: April 20th, 2011 10:23 PM

Ali, yes its time for you to resign. You support the referendum, and hey, a little boost in those property values might just help the cause. A tortured, moronic apology for your actually doing the right thing and letting the voters know that we were being "conned" by the lawyers and District 97. Are you worried OP doesn't love you anymore? Great stuff for the lawsuit.

Show some love to the rest of us  

Posted: April 20th, 2011 10:09 PM

Ali-Since it is "ok" for the School District to underestimate the tax impact by 70%, could you please treat all of fair and underestimate our home values by 70%? That way 1 group is not treated more favorably than the rest of us.

working class joe  

Posted: April 20th, 2011 10:00 PM

I'm glad that you are happy that our tax bill was underestimated by 70%. Nice work. Maybe you can give yourself a raise. On second thought, how about doing the honorable thing and step down from your position in which you are too incompetent to hold.

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