First reported 3/5/2010 1:28 p.m.

State lawmakers and park district officials in Forest Park are scrambling to correct a mistake that essentially nullifies voters’ support of a Feb. 2 tax increase aimed at enabling the park to purchase and renovate a 2.5-acre site adjacent to the district’s eastern border.

As it stands, the park is unable to collect the extra 12 cents for every $100 of assessed property value necessary to fund the acquisition and rehab of the so-called Roos property. There are two solutions, according to Cathleen McDermott, president of the park board. The first is to have legislators in Springfield adopt a law by June 1 that corrects the problem. The second remedy, which would be necessary if the legislation isn’t approved, is to ask voters again in November to support the tax increase.

“It’s going to take residents some time to get their arms around this, but we want to reassure them there is a remedy,” McDermott said.

There were actually two opportunities for McDermott and her colleagues on the board to avoid this situation. When the park adopted its levy for the current fiscal year, they did not account for the additional tax revenue generated by a successful referendum and, therefore, are unable to collect it. Levying for those additional funds – even if the referendum was not approved – should have been done, according to McDermott.

Then, in drafting the language for the Feb. 2 ballot question, park officials specifically targeted the revenue increase to the 2009 tax levy it had adopted. Had the referendum been worded differently, they wouldn’t be in this position.

Assigning responsibility for the error has not been the immediate priority, said McDermott, but that issue will be revisited. She made it clear that the park’s executive director, Larry Piekarz, and other staff members would not lose their jobs over the matter.

However, attorneys hired to advise the park board on such matters could come under fire, at different times during a Friday morning interview with the Review, McDermott shifted blame to several players, including herself.

“Our immediate concern right now is not to throw anybody under the bus,” McDermott said. “If you’re looking for blame, we probably all share some of that.”

Chapman and Cutler, a Chicago law firm that specializes in finance, has worked with the park district since the 1990s on its bond issues, and advised the board on this one. Piekarz said the firm is working with the park district to find a solution.

“After the initial anger and shock … as a board, we decided we need to get this back on track,” McDermott said of laying blame.

A spokesperson for Chapman and Cutler said the firm has no comment on the matter.

The problem was discovered approximately three weeks ago by the county, just in time to meet the legislature’s deadline for submitting new bills.

Efforts to correct the problem are underway, and state Sen. Kim Lightford of the 4th District is pushing a bill that would allow the park district to adopt a supplementary budget this year. That measure recently received unanimous support from the Local Government Committee.

Piekarz was in Springfield to help rally support for the legislation. He said both Lightford and 7th Dist. state Rep. Karen Yarbrough are pledging their support. The sentiment in Springfield, according to Piekarz, is that other communities have made similar mistakes and it’s relatively easy for lawmakers to solve the problem.

Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, has introduced legislation unrelated to Forest Park’s specific plight, but it would give all taxing bodies the authority to amend their levies, thus reducing the likelihood of this scenario reoccurring.

If Lightford’s proposal is not adopted by the state, the park district said it would have no choice but to ask voters in November to support a revised referendum.

“We’re trying to right the ship,” Piekarz said.

Both Piekarz and McDermott said the problems with the levy and referendum should not impact negotiations with Amcore Bank. The bank initiated foreclosure proceedings on the Roos property after a housing development there failed. An appraisal is still being developed, but the park has estimated it will take $6 million to purchase and rehab the land.

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