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updated: 11/5/2010 10:17 AM

News flash: Voters OK tax increases, uh, bond sales

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Official news release excerpt from West Chicago Elementary District 33, where voters just approved -- depending on your point of view -- a tax increase or a bond sale.

Date: November 3, 2010

Contact: Gina Steinbrecher, Community Relations Specialist

Subject: West Chicago says "Yes" to Middle School Expansion

NOTE: This referendum is a bond sale and does not include a tax increase, despite what the Daily Herald has reported on the front page.

I should mention the boldfacing is not mine; that's the way the release was distributed to the local media the day after Tuesday's election.

As the person responsible for this miscarriage of justice, let me pass along a couple of thoughts: 1. Gee, way to be a sore winner. 2. I think "tax increase" is in the eye of the beholder.

In all cases I can think of -- and there were several examples on suburban ballots this week -- this boils down to an issue of borrowing. A local government is borrowing money for some project, but because other debt is being retired, the debt level remains roughly the same as the new debt is taken on.

I'm trying to come up with a real-life analogy. How about this: My 9-year-old car has 160,000 miles on it; I probably could use a new one. But I vow to keep my friends at Car-X in business at least until my son graduates from college next year, and those education costs can be replaced by car payments. On one hand, no question my debt level will not increase, ought to drop, in fact. On the other hand, am I not spending money (tax dollars in the public domain) on the new car?

I'm also reminded of yet another lesson from my gruff ol' first editor: "Davis," he'd say, "issuing bonds is just another way to say 'borrowing money.'" I took that to mean "borrowing money" was the operative phrase in my stories about bond issues.

So, there's the line we tried to walk the past few months as we wrote about local referendums. As you might guess, the local elected and appointed officials we do business with every day would prefer we use their terminology and talk about "no tax rate increases" and bond issues. We have an obligation to our local leaders to be fair and accurate, but we also have to cut through the jargon and explain to our readers what's really going on in the most basic of language.

There was some compromise language we used on some occasions: "tax extension" was one phrase we used, which was a quick way to say they'd be maintaining the status quo taxwise. That would be followed with a more detailed explanation of the new borrowing replacing the soon-to-be-retired debt. I won't tell you we never used the term "bond issue" in some stories, but I hope we made it clear this was a loan. (Just thought of another bon mot from my grouchy former editor: "Issuing bonds," he'd snort, "that sounds like they've got a printing press churning out money.")

But in my haste, on deadline, I referred to the West Chicago school referendum as a "tax increase" instead of something kinder and gentler. Sorry 'bout that.

I asked Jake Griffin, senior writer, to put together a story detailing how so many tax increase/bond issue referendums passed this week not just in DuPage but throughout the suburbs. That was a fairly amazing feat considering the ever-shaky state of the economy and the more than 50 percent voter turnout (high turnout often is bad news for money issues).

Griffin's story, likely to run this weekend, will provide an array of explanations. He also checked in with anti-tax crusader Jim Tobin, who never met a tax increase he liked. He had this harsh assessment of DuPage County officials: "These so-called fiscal conservatives in DuPage are actually worse than the machine politicians in Chicago who openly push for tax increases."

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that every ballot question is an underhanded attempt to pry more money out of people. I think it's great that the taxpayers of DuPage County are willing to pay for better schools and even the guarantee of open space the purchase of Villa Olivia in Bartlett will bring. Maybe it's a sign we're beginning to emerge from the morass of financial hardship.

I just hope voters understood exactly what they were voting for.