OK, this is a screw-up.
The Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 tax hike referendum question that voters will read when they enter the voting booth on April 5 includes misleading information on the financial impact to taxpayers if they support the hike. The formula used to calculate the tax hike understates the impact by a factor of three.
How this happened is a curious and complex tale. Critics, and those of a conspiratorial bent, will assume either that the school board consciously underestimated the cost to taxpayers to win more votes or that this is an example of the board’s incompetence.
We don’t believe either of those things. And we’d point out that most every other taxing body in Cook County going for a tax hike vote this spring has miscalculated the state-mandated formula in precisely the same way. Likely that is because they all used the same law firm, which interpreted the state’s equation identically.
Now we get into the arcane nature of tax law. In Cook County, to get an accurate sense of the tax hike’s impact, the property tax equalizer or multiplier would have to be factored in. In the case of District 208 and nine other taxing bodies, the law firm of Chapman and Cutler – hot shots who actually helped write the state law a few years back – decided the law did not specifically require inclusion of the equalizer.
But Oak Park state Sen. Don Harmon, who co-sponsored that law, and Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, the first public official to publicly decry the law firm interpretation of the law, say that’s nuts, since the clear intention of his law was to provide voters a clear estimate of the financial impact of a referendum.
The question is: What happens now? According to District 208 board President James Marciniak, school board members were puzzled by the wording of the referendum question, but buckled when told this was the standard procedure. That was a failing of the board.
But to its credit, in every public discussion and document, the district has used only accurate figures reflecting the true cost of a yes vote. There was no intention to mislead. The law is specific that if there was not an effort to confuse voters, then there has been no wrongdoing.
And yet, a casual voter reading the ballot for the first time on April 5 could rightly assume a yes vote would cost them $132 annually in added tax when the real number is about $444. That’s not fair.
What to do? The vote will go forward. The ballot question will stand. The district must go to active and considerable lengths to explain the discrepancy between the ballot equation and the reality of supporting the referendum.
We believe every taxpayer must be contacted by the district via a mailing. Beyond that, there must be clarity for future tax votes in Cook County.