The figures on the ballot for West Northfield School District 31’s tax referendum are misleading, according to a group of Cook County assessors.
That’s because, along with other school, fire protection and library districts with referenda on the April 5 ballot, District 31 did not estimate its proposed tax increase using a countywide multiplier that is ultimately applied to all taxpayer’s bills, according to Ali ElSaffar, president of the Cook County Township Assessors Association and Oak Park Township Assessor.
Without the multiplier included in calculations, the ballot figures could be underestimated as much as 70 percent, he explained.
“Personally, I’m not saying I’m in favor or against any of these referendums, but I do think people have a right to good information on the ballot,” he said.
But along with school districts in Wilmette and Oak Park, District 31 says it was just following the law.
“Those questions have to be written the way it is, to meet legal requirements,” said Superintendent Alexandra Nicholson. She said the district followed the advice of Chapman and Cutler LLP, a law firm that handles property tax issues for many local taxing bodies, including several of the ones on this year’s ballot. The firm did not return calls for comment.
Since the school district was aware from the outset that the ballot calculation did not include the equalizer, Nicholson said, it made a point to communicate to voters that the actual impact on their taxes would be $59 per $1,000 of their tax bill, if the referendum passes.
“We knew that the question on the ballot was going to be extremely confusing to our voters,” she said. “We’ve been telling people from the very beginning what that question on the ballot really means.”
ElSaffar said he doesn’t blame District 31 or other school districts for the way the ballots were worded.
“I don’t think that these districts were intending to mislead anybody,” he said. “I think they’ve been given some advice which is resulting in bad information on the ballot, which is the worst place you can have bad information.”
State law requires that taxing bodies must write their ballot questions to include an estimate of how much property taxes would be for a home valued at $100,000, assuming there are no exemptions.
“The law doesn’t spell out how to come up with an estimate,” ElSaffar said. But, he added, “there’s no question, from a tax point of view, that if you want to give a good estimate, you have to use the equalizer.”
In District 31, the ballot indicates that if the referendum passes, owners of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $49 in taxes. Including the state equalizer, a multiplier of 3.3701 that is applied to every property tax in Cook County, the actual additional tax for a $100,000 home would be $165.13, according to Northfield Township Assessor Patricia Damisch.
“It’s totally being misrepresented,” Damisch said.
The figure is further confusing, she added, because few voters in District 31 have a property valued at $100,000.
“If you live on the North Shore, that’s not a realistic home,” she said. “People are going to have a very bad surprise when their taxes go up a lot, and they’re going to feel betrayed.”
For a more typical $500,000 home, Damisch said, the impact of District 31’s referendum would raise taxes by $825.67 per year.
“Ignore the ballot,” Nicholson said. “It doesn’t show a realistic impact.”