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updated: 4/11/2013 9:21 AM

Why DuPage voters rejected property tax hikes

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Experts used to say the best time to ask voters for a tax increase is when there are fewer of them at the polls.

Tuesday's election results in DuPage County show how much times have changed.

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Despite less than 19 percent voter turnout countywide, four DuPage school districts were left licking their wounds after voters soundly defeated requests for more property tax money.

Itasca Elementary District 10 sought more tax dollars to fill holes in its budget. Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Lake Park High School District 108 and Butler Elementary District 53 were hoping to pursue construction projects.

All of them lost.

"We went into this knowing it was going to be an uphill battle," said Alan Hanzlik, president of the District 53 school board in Oak Brook.

Still, supporters were surprised when the district's request to borrow $15 million to build a $40 million K-8 school was rejected by about 72 percent of the residents who voted on the measure, according to unofficial results.

A ballot question related to where the school would be built did worse.

About 76 percent of the Oak Brook voters who weighed in refused to give the village permission to sell Sports Core land to District 53 for the school.

Meanwhile, voter turnout for both ballot questions was more than 41 percent.

Hanzlik said he's now trying to figure out what went wrong with the referendum campaign.

But with voters also resisting property tax hikes in District 200, District 108 and District 10, it's possible nothing could have changed the outcome.

"The failure of a broad cross-section of these referendums indicates taxpayers are still hurting economically," said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. "They are feeling the squeeze. They are feeling overburdened."

District 10 officials said they had to seek $1 million annually in extra taxes to fill a budget shortfall that was caused, in part, by decreased state and federal funding.

That didn't stop Taxpayers United of America from campaigning against the ballot question. The Chicago-based government watchdog group argued the district was seeking higher property taxes at a time when Itasca taxpayers are taking home less pay.

The end result was the proposal being rejected by nearly 60 percent of the District 10 residents who voted on it.

District 200 residents who championed a proposal to replace an aging early childhood center acknowledge the sluggish economy likely played a role in the measure's defeat.

"We feel that the community didn't say 'No.' We feel that they said 'Not yet.'" said Dan Wagner, who served as co-chairman of a group called Friends of the Schools -- Yes to the Jefferson Early Childhood Center Referendum.

District 200 sought voter approval to borrow $17.6 million to construct a new Jefferson Early Childhood Center and demolish the existing structure in Wheaton. Roughly 59 percent of the voters rejected the idea.

Without a November election, taxing bodies can't seek another ballot question until March 2014.

District 200 school board President Rosemary Swanson said officials will take time to review the election results to determine what concerns voters had about the proposal. "We'll work to see if we can find a plan that's acceptable to them," she said.

In the meantime, the existing Jefferson doesn't match the program it houses. While two-thirds of the students have special needs, the building originally was designed as an elementary school.

Some students receive therapy in converted storage closets, while others use equipment set up at the end of hallways. In addition, some entrances and bathrooms aren't accessible for students in wheelchairs and walkers.

"It (Jefferson) needs an overall redesign," Swanson said. "And we do not have the money in our district funds to be able to do that without going to the voters to seek their support in the future."

In District 108, officials say they don't foresee the issue of an indoor swimming pool at Lake Park High School going away.

In fact, they said they're encouraged by the results, in which roughly 55 percent of voters said no to both questions related to the proposed pool.

"We're seeing an increasing level of community support even though it didn't work to our favor this time," Superintendent Lynne Panega said. "Maybe there is some traction. So we're trying to focus on the positive and use this to move forward."

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