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Referendum questions misstate true cost of passage, official charges

Voters in 10 communities across suburban Cook County will go to the polls Tuesday todecide whether to approve property tax increases to fund their local schools, park districts, libraries or fire departments, but officials say figures on the ballot underestimate just how much it’s going to cost homeowners.

By state law, the tax referendums must lay out — in dollars – how much a tax increase would cost an individual homeowner.

Ali ElSaffar, the president of the Cook County Township Assessors’ Association, said the calculations are off by as much as 70 percent. And because it’s too late to change the ballot, he’s trying to get the word out.

“My concern is when people go to the polls, are voters getting good information on the ballot?” ElSaffar told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We want people to make educated decisions on these referenda, so we’re just trying to make sure people understand. We’re not for them, we’re not against them.”

The alleged miscalculations on the ballots in Tuesday’s election can be traced to at least one Chicago law firm, hired by many of the schools and other taxing districts to help with the ballot language, including calculating the costs.

Tipped off by a citizen in February, ElSaffar confirmed the tax numbers were crunched without a key figure known as the equalizer — a number used by the state to calculate Cook County’s tax bill so they’re in line with tax rates across the 102 counties in Illinois.

In Oak Park District 97, voters will be greeted with a ballot question asking whether they favor a tax increase to support local schools. If so, according to the ballot, it would cost a homeowner an additional $37.40 per $100,000 of a home’s market value.

ElSaffar, who is also the Oak Park Township assessor, trots that out as one of the miscalculations, noting the tax burden is more than triple that amount — $126.04 per $100,000 of market value.

Chapman and Cutler, the Chicago law firm hired by many of the taxing districts to come up with the calculations, is standing by its work — saying state law makes no reference to the multiplier in coming up with its calculations.

“There’s no reference to the multiplier or the equalizer, it’s just not there,” said Lynda Given, a partner in the firm. “The school districts knew that. So, in complying with the statute and the statutory requirements, [we] put together a ballot proposition — [we] complied with the literal language of the statute.”

Asked whether the numbers on the ballot reflect what taxpayers will have to shell out, she said: “The school districts have to do what the General Assembly has told them to do. This is not a class in creative writing — you have to do what the General Assembly tells you to do.”

But Given did say the same school districts have gone to “great pains to tell the community what the real costs will be.”

That includes the Oak Park school district, along with Wilmette Public Schools District 39, which on its website posted a note to residents stating that the school board acknowledges “the legally required language was both misleading and potentially inaccurate” and is posting its own figures of for the tax increase: $58 per $1,000 of taxes paid.

Burt Odelson, an election attorney, said he has worked with schools and other taxing districts and always included the equalizer.

“We tried to take it right out of the statute and to be ultra conservative, make sure to add the language to make sure it’s clear. You have to be so careful, they’re subject to a suit if they pass and the numbers end up wrong,” Odelson said.

State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) was the chief sponsor of the legislation to put the dollar figures on the ballot and is baffled this is even a debate.

“I’m a little confused about the interpretations that led to these absurd results,” he said. “The law says you’re supposed to tell voters how much they’re supposed to pay on a residential home worth $100,000. If you don’t include the equalizer, I don’t know how you get there.”

He said he has talked to fellow lawmakers and ElSaffar about changing the language in the law, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary.

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