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updated: 11/14/2012 7:25 PM

National group spent money to defeat Arlington Hts. parks bonds

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  • This center at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights, which was built in the 1930s, would have been renovated if a tax increase had passed.

      This center at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights, which was built in the 1930s, would have been renovated if a tax increase had passed.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer


Opponents of tax increases in referendums in 12 Illinois municipalities got help from an outside advocacy group this election cycle with mailings and thousands of robocalls that went out just before Election Day, officials said.

Americans for Prosperity, a national economic reform advocacy group, spent money in a dozen races across the state at the local level, including against the Arlington Heights Park District's proposal for a $39 million bond issue, a West Chicago Park District $15.5 million bond issue for a new recreation center, and a $41 million bond issue for water supply improvements in Wauconda, said David From, director of the Illinois chapter of the group.

"We spend money on the national and state levels, but we know municipalities are trying to raise taxes also, so we thought it was another way we could help taxpayers fight more debt and higher taxes," From said.

The West Chicago and Wauconda measures were approved by voters despite Americans for Prosperity's efforts, but the Arlington Heights Park District bond issue failed by 863 votes out of about 32,000 cast, or less than 2 percent of the vote, according to unofficial election results. The group also backed opposition to a new property tax in Gilberts, which was rejected by voters.

The group spent less than $2,000 in each of the races it got involved with, From said. Robocalls, he said, are very inexpensive, and mailings were sent out in only a few races.

Americans for Prosperity is an issue-based nonprofit, often lumped in with super PACs, which are political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. They are the product of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2010 that limited government regulation of campaign spending.

About 7,000 robocalls went out to Arlington Heights residents the Thursday before the election, From said.

"I'm calling to alert you to an attempt by the Arlington Heights Park District to dramatically increase your property taxes," the call said. "The park district has an annual budget of $26 million, but wants to take on $39 million in debt at a cost of $1,175 in additional property taxes for the average taxpayer over the life of the bonds. Now is not the time to to ask taxpayers for more money. We are already paying 67 percent more in income taxes and now our politicians want to add to that burden. On Tuesday, vote no on the park district question to raise your property taxes because we are taxed enough."

The life of the bonds was 25 years. The 67 percent refers to the hike in the state income tax rate that the state Legislature passed in January 2011.

Park board President Maryfran Leno said the numbers were laid out in a misleading way and that it was "unfortunate" to have an outside group spending time and money on a local race.

The bond issue would have paid for major renovations at several of the large parks in Arlington Heights. Voters also rejected a larger, $48 million proposal in March.

From said he thought this was a successful election cycle for the group on the local level, because nine of the 12 tax increases pitched in referendums Americans for Prosperity invested in did not earn enough votes to pass.

He said the group plans to be active in local races during the April 2013 consolidated municipal election as well.

"We just felt there was a need to get involved," From said. "Sometimes the government entity will have slick fliers and their informational campaign that doesn't quite cross the line of advocating for their side, but then the local folks who oppose it have a limited number of resources available, so we thought we could be helpful to them."

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