day after slapping Wilmette School District 39 with a lawsuit that claims the district’s successful 35 cent tax-rate hike referendum was illegal, referendum foes stepped up the fight.
Taxpayers United of America, which filed the lawsuit Monday in conjunction with Wilmette resident Herb Sorock, said Tuesday afternoon that it will seek a temporary restraining order to prevent the district from collecting any tax levy money generated by the referendum.
A press release from the Chicago-based anti-taxation group stated it would ask Cook County Circuit Court Judge Rita Novak for the order in a May 23 hearing at the Daley Center, and claimed that the district “held a special meeting to enact the new property tax levy despite” having been given notice of the suit.
The comment apparently referred to two previously scheduled public hearings the board held Monday before its regular May meeting. The hearings were to approve the amended $43.93 million 2010 levy and an amended 2010-11 budget in the wake of the referendum. Both hearings are required by law.
District officials, who dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous, said they couldn’t comment on this latest salvo because they hadn’t received word of the court date. They have scheduled a special 7 a.m. Thursday meeting to discuss litigation, although district spokeswoman Holly Goldin said Tuesday that she could not confirm that the lawsuit was the sole reason for the meeting.
In their official response, district officials excoriated Sorock and Taxpayers United in a news release for bringing a lawsuit that “will only waste taxpayer money as the District and the Board must defend themselves.”
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Sorock finds the need to challenge a referendum that was approved by voters by a significant majority,” board President Karen Donnan said in the release.
Monday afternoon, she was even more direct, saying, “My first thought is oh, my gosh, how much is this going to cost us? We’ve been working very hard to control costs in our budget, even after the successful referendum,” she said.
“We have very limited dollars. It’s either teachers in the classroom or fighting lawsuits.”
The lawsuit, which names both the school district and individual school board members, claims the board and district officials knew before the election that the estimated tax increase was understated, but decided to go forward with the referendum regardless.
Specifically, it challenges the legality of the ballot language used in the April 5 ballot, claiming that the actual question voters saw failed to include the state multiplier in calculating the estimated property tax increase, thereby understating that increase by at least two-thirds of the actual amount.
It seeks to nullify the election, and asks the court to prevent the board from collecting any new taxes voters approved in the referendum.
Taxpayers United filed similar lawsuits in April against Oak Park School District 97 and against Riverside-Brookfield School District 208.
In their official response, district representatives pointed out that the referendum’s wording was actually set out by law, and was thoroughly vetted by the district’s legal counsel.
“The district took every additional opportunity to simply and directly communicate the factual impact of the referendum on the taxpayer as an increase in property taxes paid,” they stated.
“The statute specifies that the ballot language does not include the equalizer.”
The referendum’s wording surfaced as an issue late in the campaign, when an Oak Park Township official also claimed the wording several school districts had placed on the ballot gave incorrect information to voters. At the time, Superintendent Raymond Lechner acknowledged the language was confusing, but said referendum supporters and the district clearly laid out the real tax-hike costs for voters.
The new levy will collect no more than $43.93 million, although the referendum win technically allows District 39 to get roughly $49.2 million. The board previously passed a resolution promising to collect no more than the smaller number, a promise district officials made during the referendum campaign.
In fact the official board response noted that the amended levy will add $58 more per $1,000 of property tax to taxpayers’ bills, “exactly what the District said in all of its communications leading up to the April 5th vote.”
Sorock, reached late Monday, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He attended both special hearings Monday night, but left without speaking during the time allotted at both for public comment.