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Article updated: 3/27/2013 8:27 AM

Watchdog group battles Dist. 10 over tax increase

By Robert Sanchez

A government watchdog group is leading opposition to a property tax increase Itasca Elementary District 10 is seeking to raise more money for operations.

Now both sides are debating how much the proposed tax hike would cost property owners if voters approve the referendum question on April 9.

"They (District 10 officials) are lying to the voters in order to pass a tax increase that would line their own pockets," said Jim Tobin, president of the Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America.

District 10 is asking voters to give it an additional $1 million annually to fill a budget shortfall that officials say resulted from several factors, including decreased state and federal funding.

Taxpayers United of America, however, is taking issue with the district's claim on its website that the owner of a $300,000 home would pay about $240 more a year in property taxes if the ballot question is approved.

Language on the ballot does state the 2013 levy for District 10 is estimated to cost the owner of a $300,000 home about $846 in extra taxes if the tax hike is approved.

But district officials insist most of the projected increase -- about $606 -- is caused by a big drop in the taxable value of land in the district.

Since 1991, a state-imposed cap has limited the amount by which many taxing bodies can increase their levies to the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower. But even with the cap, tax rates still can increase if the overall taxable value of property drops.

For District 10, the tax rate was roughly $1.90 per $100 of assessed value in 2011, when the overall value of land in the district was about $516 million.

This year, the value of land districtwide is projected to be a little more than $418 million, officials said. So even if the ballot question is defeated, the district's tax rate is expected to rise to about $2.51 per $100 of assessed value.

"Our tax rate is climbing fairly steeply," said Kory Atkinson, the school district's director of operations. "That doesn't mean the district is getting more money. It just means property values in our district are dropping pretty dramatically."

If the April 9 ballot question is approved, the district's rate is projected to climb to about $2.75 per $100 of assessed value.

Superintendent Marcia Tornatore says District 10 needs the $1 million in additional revenue because it has had to dip into its reserve cash to pay for expenses.

"It (the tax increase) will generate the money that we're looking for to maintain our programs," she said.

And if the tax increase generates more than $1 million in revenue, Tornatore said, the school board has promised to return any extra cash to taxpayers.

Nevertheless, Taxpayers United of America on Monday announced it is working with activists in District 10 to defeat the proposal.

Rae Ann McNeilly, the group's executive director, called the district's explanation about how much the proposed increase would cost taxpayers "an attempt to mislead the voters."

"They are trying to find a way to fool the public into approving a really expensive property tax increase," she said.

McNeilly said her group opposes the tax increase, in part, because most of the money would pay for salaries and benefits for District 10 staff.

"They are asking taxpayers -- who have already taken a hit with declining house values -- to take another hit," McNeilly said. "I think not."

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