George says a no vote is the 'Centsible' choice

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By Nona Tepper

If you haven't heard, the Forest Park Review is fact-checking every campaign flier this election season, in an effort to inform voters. Keep in touch: ntepper@wjinc.com or jill@oakpark.com.

Flier Name: "George Says A NO VOTE Is The "Centsible" Choice

Specs: 8½ -by-11, glossy, two-sided

Submitted to the Forest Park Review: Oct. 23

George Washington makes a cameo in this flier, which offers a few claims:

1)    "Video gaming has already brought in nearly $300,000 in revenue to Forest Park!" TRUE

As of Sept. 17, the total amount the village has made from video gambling is $287,097 since October 2016, when gambling in Forest Park was legalized, according to data provided by the village of Forest Park, which includes all license fees, permits and the village's share of the terminal income.

In fiscal year 2019, which runs from May 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019, the village has so far earned $104,035 from video gambling.

In fiscal year 2018, which ran from May 1, 2017 to April 30, 2018, the village earned $165,141 from video gaming. In fiscal year 2017, which ran from May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017, the village earned $17,921 from video gaming.

2)    "Increased revenue supports police officers, firefighters and public works programs without relying on higher property taxes." MISLEADING

Property taxes cover less than 20 percent of the village's revenue, with the remaining funds coming from sales taxes, fees and grants. The village levied the full amount it can for property taxes in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the calendar years gambling has been legal in the village, said Tim Gillian, village administrator.

The village is subject to the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, which limits property tax levy increases to 5 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is lower.

"We have no ability to tell them to raise [property taxes] or lower them," Gillian said. "That said, the county gives us a finite amount of money each year and any year that I have revenue from someplace else, then, of course, we rely on that revenue."

At a village council meeting on Dec. 18, 2017, Letitia Olmstead, village finance director, noted that half of the village's property tax levy goes toward pension obligations.

The ordinance allowing video gaming is silent on how revenue the village receives from video gaming must be used. Video gambling revenue goes into the village's general operating fund, which funds "basic services," according to the 2017 auditor's report.

The Forest Park police union, firefighters union and public works employees have all endorsed video gaming.

3)    "The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors in endorsing a NO VOTE stated, "We have seen increased revenue to local establishments, including many that have long been a part of Forest Park." TRUE

The Chamber wrote that in an August 2018 letter to the Review.

4)    "Video gaming has allowed local businesses to hire new employees, increase salaries and make improvements on their buildings…" TRUE, BUT…

Ronald Milchhoefer Jr., who co-owns R Place with his father, said he's used the revenue from video gaming to pay his bills, property taxes and do some long-overdue maintenance to 1527 Harlem Ave. Namely, he bought all new bar stools, seal coated and striped the parking lot, replaced the mortar joints in the building and more. From December 2016 to October 2018, R Place earned $81,303 from video gaming, according to data obtained from the Illinois Gaming Board on Oct. 15.

"I was able to take care of a few long-time employees, pay them some more than I was, I also hired new employees -- two in the kitchen and one extra bartender -- and a lot of other little things. It's been good, it's been a long time coming, we hadn't had the extra money to do things like that," he said.

It is impossible to know and verify how every private business owner with video gaming in their establishments uses the revenue they receive from the practice.

5)    "…which generates additional tax dollars!" HARD TO SAY

Maura Kownacki, spokeswoman for the Cook County Assessor, said anytime a property owner makes a major renovation to their space, like constructing an addition, they must take out a permit for work to be done. The permit automatically notifies the Cook County Assessor's office that a field inspection must be done. It is then that officials note any improvements made to the property.

She said it is "hard to speculate" if these could lead to an increase in tax dollars for the village of Forest Park.

"If the improvements resulted in the property being more valuable, this may ultimately result in an increase in assessed value -- and this could ultimately affect the amount in tax dollars," Kownacki said. "It is hard to speculate in situations such as these, however, until the work has been done, a field inspection has occurred and the new assessed value has been determined."

SENT BY: Let Forest Park Grow-Vote No, which is a ballot initiative committee established Aug. 22 with the aim of supporting licensed video gaming in Forest Park.

James Watts, owner of O'Sullivan's Public House and the bar owner who brought the local battle over video gaming to the Illinois Supreme Court, is listed as its chairperson. Let Forest Park Grow's headquarters is 545 Beloit Ave., a residential property Watts owns, according to property records.

As of its most recent filing to the Illinois State Board of Elections on Oct. 16, the group had $64,200 in funds, with the majority of contributions coming from video gaming machine companies and beverage distributors.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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