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updated: 5/21/2014 5:05 AM

Legislation could close Medinah golf course tax loophole

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  • Legislation prompted by a Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog report would prevent Medinah Country Club officials from seeking a nearly 80 percent property tax reduction amounting to nearly $300,000.

      Legislation prompted by a Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog report would prevent Medinah Country Club officials from seeking a nearly 80 percent property tax reduction amounting to nearly $300,000.
    Daily Herald File Photo/2008

  • Marquardt Elementary District 15 Superintendent Loren May

      Marquardt Elementary District 15 Superintendent Loren May

  • DuPage County Election Commission Executive Director Bob Saar posted the agency's employee compensation report on the commission's website after being notified its absence violated state law.

      DuPage County Election Commission Executive Director Bob Saar posted the agency's employee compensation report on the commission's website after being notified its absence violated state law.
    Daily Herald File Photo/2006

  • Salary growth

    Graphic: Salary growth

 
 

An investigation into big tax breaks sought by suburban golf courses that spurred legislative action.

Why the highest-paid school district official in the state might surprise you.

And where to find a missing list of DuPage County Election Commission salaries.

These are the stories and updates in this helping of what we call watchdog kibble, culled every now and then from readers' tips, questions and suggestions. So, let's dig in.

Tax mulligan

The massive property tax break sought by officials from the exclusive Medinah Country Club would not be allowed under legislation now making its way through Springfield.

A bill already passed by the state Senate but undergoing several cosmetic changes in the House version would clearly define what parts of a golf course could be considered "open space."

Officials at Medinah -- host of the 2012 Ryder Cup -- and operators of several other private golf courses throughout the suburbs are petitioning the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board to designate the entire property as open space, which would significantly reduce tax liabilities.

A Daily Herald investigation showed that Medinah officials stood to lower the club's property tax bill by nearly 80 percent if the golf club's lawyers were successful. That would cut the club's 2013 tax bill from $391,554 to $84,257. School districts and other government bodies due that money would lose it and neighboring property owners would have that tax burden shift onto them in the future.

"I don't think millionaire golf course owners should be getting a tax break on the backs of seniors who can barely afford to stay in their homes," said state Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican who has been working on the issue but said "the critical need to get this done this year" was prompted by the Daily Herald investigation.

At the heart of the argument is the current state law that golf course attorneys believe allows open space designation for all parts of the course because the commercial buildings allow the adjacent property to remain "open."

A court battle involving the state Property Tax Appeal Board and a Lake Forest golf club did not settle the issue. The Illinois Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The Senate version of the bill called for a slight tax break, allowing golf clubs to receive open space credit on up to 10,000 square feet of clubhouse or pro shop property. Sullivan said he is tweaking the House version to prevent further confusion among other corporate property owners and reduce the square-footage credits for golf-related buildings to a maximum of 8,000 square feet.

Louis Apostal, executive director of Property Tax Appeal Board, said the legislation would provide the guidelines needed to enforce property tax assessments on golf courses, but he still has some concerns about the bill.

"There are a couple of contradictions in this bill when they talk about swimming pools and other improved areas," he said. "It's immaterial whether I like it or not. We would prefer to have hard and fast rules on this to just apply it."

Big pay, little district

It's no surprise that superintendents of suburban public school districts have the highest salaries among the 160,000-plus educators across the state contributing to Illinois Teachers' Retirement System.

But at the very top of that list is Loren May, the superintendent of a five-school elementary district in Glendale Heights.

The retirement system reports May's "current creditable earnings" at $357,117, almost $23,000 more than any other educator in the system and one of 10 receiving more than $300,000 in the state.

May's total compensation is 160 percent more than in 2002 when he started with the district. It's also more than twice any other employee of the district, according to the retirement system's data.

"The value the board of education places on the superintendent goes well beyond the size of the district he serves," Bruce Barreras, president of the Marquardt District 15 school board, wrote in an email. "Dr. May has brought leadership, innovation and economic prowess that has allowed the school district to access opportunities that derive value for the dollars the district spends."

But critics argue district taxpayers are not getting the results they are paying for.

"There are over 800 superintendents making $200,000 and $300,000, and all they do is try to convince parents their children are getting a good education and they aren't," said Jack Roeser, founder of the Family Taxpayers Foundation, a conservative organization often critical of the state's public education system. "These people are supposed to be leaders of the district, and if you look at the rankings, they are presiding over a below-standard district."

In 2013, 58.8 percent of the state's tested students met or exceeded state education standards, compared to 51.9 percent of Marquardt students. The district's students have tested below the state average since 2008, according to state records.

May did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

May signed a one-year contract extension last year. When he retires, his pension will start at more than $264,000 a year, according to the retirement system's records.

Where's the report?

Before this week, if you wanted to know how much DuPage County Election Commissioner Executive Director Bob Saar was making, you'd have to send in a Freedom of Information request.

That's despite a state law requiring a government agency to post a "compensation report" on its website detailing the salaries, benefits and other financial perks for all employees that amount to more than $75,000 a year. That's also despite a compensation report on the county's website detailing salaries for every other county position.

"If they are running afoul of the law, they need to rectify that immediately," said Maryam Judar, executive director and community lawyer at the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center. "Someone over there needs to take responsibility."

And so someone did. After being reminded of its absence, Saar had the report posted on the commission's website, dupageco.org/election, Monday afternoon. He is requesting the information be added to the county's report as well.

"We're going to request that we give them permission to add us to the county compensation report so you would see that there," he said.

But why isn't the commission's salary information listed in the county report?

"The county's compensation report includes all employees who report to the county board and the countywide elected officials' offices," said Johnna Kelly, a DuPage County Board spokeswoman. "The Election Commission is not included in this report because it is a separate entity established under the state election code."

But Judar questions that rationale.

"If they're posting it for other appointed bodies, obviously there's not internal logic to their excuse."

Saar's annual salary is nearly $141,000, by the way.

Got a tip?

Contact Jake at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. Follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and at twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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