By Jean Lotus
It's been ten years since voters of Forest Park agreed to allow a half-penny tax on sales goods and services for infrastructure repairs. During that time, the village used the guaranteed roughly $800,000 per year to first borrow money for an alley replacement program, then for alley replacements and infrastructure work from the "VIP" fund.
Now an additional .5 percent tax for infrastructure will appear on the March 18 primary ballot.
The tax would raise to nine percent the total amount of sales tax paid in Forest Park on purchases such as restaurant meals and consumer goods (excluding grocery food and medicines). That's as much as buyers pay in neighboring towns like Oak Park, Berwyn and Chicago.
"This is not just a tax on residents, but other people who come to Forest Park and do their shopping here," said Commissioner Tom Mannix at the December Village Council meeting.
But some say the different wording of the referendum than that approved in Nov. 2, 2004 is troubling.
The referendum language is identical to that used in 2004, except with an extra clause, noted Commissioner Christopher Harris in December.
In 2004 the wording read:
"Should the Village of Forest Park impose a Retailers Occupation Tax and Service Occupation Tax , each in the amount of ½ of 1 % pursuant to 65 ILCS 5-/8-11-1.3 and 1.4 to be used for expenditure on public infrastructure?"
In 2014, the wording remains the same, except for a tag-on of a phrase:
… to be used for expenditure on public infrastructure or for property tax relief or both?"
Harris said he thought it was "disingenuous" to add the phrase "or for property tax relief" to the question, since the village had no intention of reducing property taxes.
Village attorney Nick Peppers said language was lifted from the 2002 Illinois state statute.
But former Commissioner Terry Steinbach, who was on the council in 2004 remembers differently. Steinbach said she fought to get the phrase "or for property tax relief or both," removed from the referendum question ten years ago.
"It was important to me that the money be just allocated to infrastructure and not be used for anything else," Steinbach said Sunday.
"[Then Commissioner] Tim Gillian and I went around [in Fall of 2004] and spoke to town hall meetings to explain the referendum to people," Steinbach said. "When it came up, I said I was not in favor if it had the potential to be used for other uses other than infrastructure," Steinbach remembered.
Gillian said last week, "The language for the ballot question is dictated by the law."
The statute does use the "property tax relief" language, but says the "election authority must submit the question in substantially the following form:" followed by the language [italics, the Review].
At the December meeting, Harris attempted to change the motion to strike the property tax language, but was unable to get a second on his motion to amend, so the council voted on the original wording. Harris voted nay.
"Wouldn't it be more competitive to be the community that has the lower sales tax?" asked Harris.
Non-home rule villages have been able to vote in incremental sales tax increases for infrastructure since 2002.
The statute is clear about what the money can be used for: "Municipal roads and streets, access roads, bridges, and sidewalks; waste disposal systems; and water and sewer line extensions, water distribution and purification facilities, storm water drainage and retention facilities, and sewage treatment facilities," the statute says. The money can also be used for public schools, the statute says.
"It is our intent to use all of the dollars raised for infrastructure improvements," Gillian said in an email.
The statute is also clear about what tax relief means: "'Property tax relief' means the action of a municipality to reduce the levy for real estate taxes or avoid an increase in the levy for real estate taxes that would otherwise have been required," the statute says.
What will the village use the money for?
A decade ago, Forest Park used the money as a guaranteed revenue source for a 2005 bond issue that generated money for a series of around 50 alley repairs.
Mayor Anthony Calderone suggested to the council the additional sales tax money could be used to repair several alleys a year, "but that's just a suggestion," he said at the December meeting.
According to village engineers, 53 alleys are in "poor" condition and six are "unserviceable." Gillian said the .5 cent increase per dollar now generates about $1 million per year. It costs between $50,000 - $250,000 to replace an alley.
Commissioner Tom Mannix said he'd like to see the money used to borrow up to $11 million for a first-pass sewer replacement system. Mannix said in December he thought the village could qualify for a grant for a sewer system makeover from Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the state of Illinois and the federal government, if the village was able to come up with matching funds.
"I talked about the alleys only to create a scenario," Calderone said.
"Let the voters decide. If they think they'd like to see us have additional revenue to do infrastructure work," he added. "There's plenty of time to decide what to do."