Tax plan to help revitalize Jeff Park business area not moving forward this year
by BRIAN NADIG
A proposal to form a taxing body to help beautify and market the Jefferson Park business district will not be approved for next year, but city officials have not ruled out the possibility for 2017.
Alderman John Arena (45th) has withdrawn his support for the proposed special service area after concerns were raised about the validity of some of the signatures on a support petition which the city Department of Planning and Development requires to create the taxing body. The applicant for the service area was the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce.
“As you most likely know, I am a strong supporter of a special service area for downtown Jefferson Park. An SSA would fund marketing and beautification projects in downtown Jefferson Park, helping attract more businesses and more customers. The Six Corners SSA is one of the reasons for the continuing revitalization of that shopping district.
"However, due to several issues that have arisen during the process of forming an SSA, I am withdrawing my support for the Jefferson Park SSA for the time being,” Arena said in a statement.
Arena said that he is concerned that some of the chamber’s leaders testified against the proposal at a recent City Council hearing. Chamber president George Karzas and board chairman Lionel Rabb have said that the proposal came at the wrong time given the large property tax increase that the City Council recently approved and that the boundaries for the service area would be too large and would include too many residential properties.
The Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association opposes the inclusion of residential properties in the service area. About 500 of the affected properties would have been residential, most of which are condominiums and apartment buildings.
City policy requires that boundaries for service areas be contiguous, with no properties being left out, but some municipalities have a different interpretation of state law, which authorizes the creation of service areas. In Evanston, condominiums which are located above storefronts can be exempted.
The service area primarily would run along Lawrence Avenue between the Kennedy Expressway and Austin Avenue and along Milwaukee Avenue between Montrose Avenue and the Kennedy. The average commercial property owner would pay about $1,100 a year and the average residential owner $172, based on a service area budget of $220,000 for the first year.
Last summer the department approved 148 signatures which the chamber had submitted, meeting the city’s requirement that at least 20 percent of the owners of the 730 affected properties sign the petition. The chamber collected about 155 signatures, but the department ruled out about a half-dozen of them.
However, at a recent public hearing, resident Ron Ernst challenged 18 of the signatures which the department had accepted, claiming that the owner of the property had not signed the petition. In once instance a man who has been incarcerated for several years signed for two properties and that a woman who died last year signed for another property, according to Ernst.
Since the hearing, additional property owners have claimed that the person who signed the petition did not have their authorization to do so, and in some instances the owners have no idea who the signer is, Ernst said.
The owner of a commercial property in the 5900 block of West Lawrence Avenue issued a letter to the city opposing the service area proposal, but city records indicate that a man who is not listed on county tax records as the owner of the storefront signed the chamber’s petition.
Ernst, who is a board member of the neighborhood Association, worked with association president Robert Bank and member Tami Goldmann to review documents that the chamber had submitted to the city. They acquired those materials through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
At the hearing Ernst has claimed that there was “fraud” and “forgery” in collecting the signatures, but some chamber officials have maintained that the city gives little direction in how to collect the signatures and that there was no deliberate deception. The city requires that the owner who is listed on county tax records or a representative of that entity sign the petition, but it does not require verification that the representative has the authority to sign and does not require petition circulators to sign any petition which they submit.
Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh said that the alderman plans to work with the department to help clarify the petition requirements. “Quite frankly, the whole process is flawed and needs some revamping,” he said.
The support petition requirement is “relatively new” and was not required when the Six Corners Special Service Area was formed about 10 years ago, Brugh said. The petition is required under a city policy, and it is not required under state law, which authorizes the creation of service area.
The department has left the window open for the chamber to resubmit additional signatures and possibly have the service area approved in the fall of 2016. The chamber also would have to demonstrate that it still supports the idea and is willing to carry out the duties and responsibilities of being a service provider for a taxing agency, according to the chamber.
“I have deep concerns about the chamber’s ability to effectively and responsibly manage taxpayer dollars. Before I will support the chamber as the agency managing the SSA, the chamber must demonstrate they are unequivocally committed to the creation and management of the SSA.
“I know that there are many in our business and residential community who support an SSA for downtown Jefferson Park, and there is still an opportunity to create an SSA, either with the chamber for 2017, or with another agency in charge of managing the SSA. I remain committed to working with all that wish to help our local business community grow and thrive,” Arena said.
In his statement, Arena was critical of some of the chamber’s board members. “I am deeply concerned about the actions of some members of the chamber’s leadership. Specifically, past president Lionel Rabb has attempted to undermine the very process he initiated and the majority of board members continue to support.”
Rabb said that his opinion on the proposal evolved and that a year ago he would have never commissioned a study on creating a service area if he knew at the time that the city would be implementing garbage collection fees and a large property tax increase of its own citywide. “I carefully read the data and changed my decision,” he said.
If the service area were approved, it likely would have generated a $2.2 million tax levy on the affected property owners over its 10-year lifespan, Rabb said. “You can’t change it once (the service area) is in place,” he said.
The service area also would have generated about an additional $80,000 a year in property tax revenue which would have gone the Jefferson Park Tax Increment Financing District, which was created in 1998 and is intended for infrastructure improvements. TIF districts collect revenue from each taxing district, and for some newer condominiums in the proposed service area, about 90 percent of their service area tax would have been allocated to the TIF district, according to Ernst.
Rabb said that Arena was “giving me too much credit” for stopping the proposal because in the end sufficient support for the project was not there. He said that the chamber’s endeavor was not a waste of time if it leads to a better petition process.
There are many flaws in the city’s petition process, including the fact that the chamber was not required to disclose how much each owner would be paying and that the city allows not-for-profit groups which do not pay property taxes to sign support petitions, Ernst said. Fourteen of the signers on the chamber’s petition were from entities which do not pay property taxes, he said.
Editor’s note: Publisher Brian Nadig is a member of the chamber’s executive board.