An Oak Park resident’s complaint about the language of a school referendum question in that village has uncovered potential problems with similar referendum questions throughout the Chicago area, including at Riverside-Brookfield High School.

That complaint got the attention of Oak Park Township’s assessor, Ali ElSaffar, who says the ballot question in Oak Park – whose format is identical to the question being posed to voters in District 208 – underestimates the impact of the proposed tax increase.

At issue is the wording of the referendum question itself, says ElSaffar. The question does not factor in the state equalizer, a number used by the Cook County assessor to help calculate local tax bills.

According to the question that will appear on the ballot, Dist. 208 seeks a .44 percent increase in the limiting rate. For the 2010 tax year, according to the question, “the approximate amount of the additional tax extendable against a property containing a single family residence and having a fair market value at the time of the referendum of $100,000 is estimated to be $44.”

Taken at face value, the question implies that a home with a fair-market value of $300,000 would see its taxes increase by $132. However, that is not the case.

When the state equalizer is applied to the equation, you get closer to the amount that Dist. 208 officials themselves have been stating all along.

For tax year 2009, the state equalizer is 3.3701. A residential property valued at $100,000 is assessed in Cook County at 10 percent, or $10,000. When you multiply that number by the state equalizer, you get $33,701 – the equalized assessed value of that $100,000 property. When you then apply the proposed tax increase (.44) to that number, the actual increase in the tax bill is $148.28, not $44. For a home valued at $300,000 the estimated increase in taxes (3 x $148.28) is $444.84.

By not factoring in the state equalizer, ElSaffar insists that the ballot question is inaccurate. In at least nine other municipalities and school districts with referendum questions on the ballot on April 5, including Dist. 208, the same formula was used.

Chicago-based law firm Chapman and Cutler, which specializes in this area of financial law, helped Oak Park District 97 and RB Dist. 208 draft their ballot questions.

Lynda Given, a partner with Chapman and Cutler, said her firm followed the existing statute in each instance. She stressed that the statute does not include the equalizer.

ElSaffar acknowledged that point. But he said that the statute, which was amended in 2006, does not state that the equalizer should be ignored either. In addition, he says, it also does not specify using any kind of tax rate.

Yet Chapman and Cutler uses a tax rate in drafting its questions. As such, there’s nothing stopping the firm from calculating the state equalizer as well, ElSaffar argues. Not doing so, he says, is wrong with respect to accurately estimating one’s taxes.

“If a taxpayer called me and I did not include the equalizer, they’d be furious with me,” ElSaffar said. “Because if we forgot the equalizer, the bill would be a third of what they’ll actually have. They’d be justifiably upset with me because I would have given them some bad information.”

ElSaffar doesn’t believe that the school districts are trying to intentionally mislead voters. In fact, in its informational materials, Dist. 208 has consistently stated that the owner of a home valued at $300,000 would see an increase of more than $400.

But if the only information a voter at the polls had was the question in front of him, it could lead to confusion.

Riverside Township Assessor Fran Sitkiewicz also acknowledged that discrepancy between the question and its actual impact but added, “Voters are responsible for getting the information they need before going to the polls.”

Rather, ElSaffar says, the district’s law firm has misinterpreted the state statute.

Given, however, insists that her firm did not make any interpretation, but simply followed the law explicitly.

Dist. 208 Interim Superintendent David Bonnette expressed surprise at the potential conflict. He said that in matters such as these, Chapman and Cutler is recognized as the final word in referendum matters.

“They are like talking to God,” said Bonnette of the firm’s credentials in this area of financial law. “Even specialists like William Blair [the district’s financial advisor] defer to them.

“All of us defer to the legal authority in how it’s presented in order to effect it.”

Dist. 208 school board President James Marciniak said board members expressed some unease with the wording of the referendum question as well, but that in the end they deferred to the advice from Chapman and Cutler.

He affirmed that the question as it is posed now does understate the actual tax increase by the amount of the state equalizer.

“It’s dreadfully complicated, and it’s taking an already bad situation and piling more complication on top of it,” Marciniak said, adding he’s not satisfied with Chapman and Cutler’s explanation of their interpretation of the law.

“It’s an inadequate explanation of why we come up with a number that’s way too low,” Marciniak said.

Kevin Peppard, an Oak Park resident, first contacted the Landmark’s sister newspaper, Wednesday Journal, about the ballot question in Oak Park School Dist. 97, threatening to sue the district if it passes. He’s backed off that threat, but he still thinks it could face a legal challenge.

ElSaffar, himself a lawyer, thinks someone could potentially challenge the referendum in court although he indicated such a challenge would face a hurdle due to language in the statute stating that “any error … set forth on the ballot and in the notice that is not deliberate shall not invalidate or affect the validity of any proposition approved.”

ElSaffar doesn’t believe either Dist. 97 or Dist. 208 deliberately made an error.

“I don’t think they intentionally tried to mislead anybody, but that’s an impression that someone might get,” ElSaffar said.

Ironically, he said, the problem with the ballot questions is exactly what the state legislature wanted to avoid when it amended the law back in 2006.

“The legislation was really a kind of a consumer protection act,” ElSaffar said, “full disclosure for the voters, to know what he or she is getting into when they vote for a particular issue.

“To interpret it in a way that essentially undermines that intent – and we’re not now giving full disclosure, we’re short by 70 percent or something – is aggravating.”