Trying to ‘make it happen’: How Arlington Heights is working to resolve tax dispute between Bears, schools

Though they’ve mostly been quiet publicly, Arlington Heights and Chicago Bears officials have been working behind the scenes for months to resolve a property tax dispute over the NFL franchise’s 326-acre Arlington Park property, according to records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The memorandum of understanding on property tax assessments and payments would have to be approved by all three school districts whose boundaries fall within the sprawling site. So far, they haven’t said no to the proposed deal.

Eventually, whatever the parties agree to would be brought to the Cook County Board of Review for final approval.

Records obtained by the Daily Herald show Arlington Heights officials started working internally on a draft memorandum in July, ahead of a series of meetings with leadership from the Bears, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15.

The records response, received this week, includes hundreds of pages of email and text message communications among top village officials, who have been working to craft a property tax arrangement that’s agreeable to the NFL club and school districts.

Emails show various red-lined versions of the document — labeled “draft and confidential” — have been sent back and forth among village officials, the Bears and schools. The village’s hired external consultants — lobbyist Matt Murphy, who is a former Republican state senator from Palatine, and real estate development expert Rob Hunden — also got a look.

But specifics of the memorandum itself were redacted by the village.

“We’re meeting on the resolution of outstanding issues,” Village Manager Randy Recklaus confirmed. “We’ve made a lot of progress in our discussions with the Bears and the school districts in recent months. And as you saw there’s been a lot of meetings and discussions with the parties over these issues.”

The Bears, who declared in June that their newly purchased Arlington Park property was no longer its “singular focus” for a new stadium location, on Thursday reiterated a more recent statement from September.

“We continue to have dialogue with officials in Arlington Heights,” said club spokesman Scott Hagel.

In a joint statement from districts 15, 211 and 214 on Friday, officials said they continue to be supportive of the potential redevelopment, but they’re waiting on the Bears to provide their appraisal of the property by the end of the year so they can discuss next steps. The districts on Dec. 8 announced their appraiser valued the property at $160 million.

“We have been engaged in conversations on wide-ranging topics with the Bears and the village of Arlington Heights, including the nature of the development, how that development will impact the school districts and potential student generation from residential construction, and on resolving the 2023 property assessment for this 326-acre parcel,” the schools said.

  The Chicago Bears’ proposed redevelopment of the former Arlington Park property, in background, has been stalled by a property tax dispute between the team and three suburban school districts. But Arlington Heights officials have been working behind the scenes in recent months to bring the two sides together record show. Paul Valade/, January 2023

Searching for a middle ground

Discussions over the summer and fall came after the Bears and former racetrack owner Churchill Downs Inc. reached a deal in May over the 2022 assessment year, in which the land was valued at $95 million and the property tax bill was $7.8 million.

The Bears and school districts have been far apart on what those numbers should be going forward, with the Bears suggesting at one point they should pay $4.3 million before the land is developed into a $5 billion stadium-anchored entertainment campus. The school districts have suggested $7.9 million.

Records show village officials started taking a more active role in bringing the sides together in July, holding meetings with Bears General Counsel Cliff Stein, followed by the three school district superintendents.

On Aug. 3, Recklaus sent a draft of the memorandum of understanding to the superintendents. That was about the same time Mayor Tom Hayes placed individual calls to the presidents of each board of education.

“Had a good call with Lisa (Szczupaj) at D15,” Hayes wrote Recklaus in an Aug. 4 text. “She says they are committed to working with all to getting it resolved and agrees there is a middle ground number. She was at least aware that MOU ( memorandum of understanding) is being discussed.”

Hayes later wrote that he had good calls with District 214 board President Alva Kreutzer and District 211 board President Anna Klimkowicz.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes

But the mayor also wrote in an email to village staff that two of the board members indicated they were waiting on Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to make the first move and set the 2023 assessment. Kaegi earlier moved to hike the reassessment nearly sixfold, thereby increasing the annual bill from $2.8 million to $16.2 million.

After a meeting with village officials, District 214 Superintendent Scott Rowe texted Recklaus, “I spoke to the other superintendents, and we are happy to hear that you are as confident as you are, and want to stand with you.”

The rest of the message was redacted by the village.

In the joint statement from the three districts Friday, officials said they look forward to getting the Bears’ appraisal so they have “relevant information” to take next steps with the team, village and assessor’s office with respect to the 2023 assessment.

“Arlington Heights continues to be a strong community partner, and we look forward to continuing conversations with all parties involved in the proposed redevelopment of the property,” the districts said.

Meeting at Halas Hall

Chicago Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren Associated Press

Village officials first presented a draft of the memo to Bears President/CEO Kevin Warren during a Sept. 15 meeting at Halas Hall. Attendees included Hayes, Recklaus, Village Attorney Hart Passman, Planning and Community Development Director Charles Witherington-Perkins and Finance Director Tom Kuehne.

Before a PowerPoint presentation given by Recklaus, Hayes began with an introduction. He said the number one question residents ask him is, “Are they coming?”

“The answer I give to that question is ‘we're working on it,’ and we have been very hard this summer, and that's why we are here today — to brief you on what we believe is a way forward for the Bears to refocus on Arlington Heights as at least the primary, if not the singular, focus of your stadium search efforts,” according to Hayes’ prepared remarks.

Less than a month later, Hayes emailed Warren, Stein and Bears Chairman George McCaskey with results of a Meet Chicago Northwest survey, in which 82% of respondents thought a Bears stadium in Arlington Heights would be a positive. Hayes said he was sharing the information “as part of our ongoing efforts to help ‘make it happen.’”

Less than two weeks later, Stein texted Recklaus, “Good news, we are ready to take next steps on MOU discussions.” Stein, Warren, Bears Chief Financial Officer Karen Murphy and outside counsel Paul Shadle visited village hall for a meeting Nov. 6.

Meeting notices indicate Recklaus and Shadle discussed property tax issues as recently as early December.

“We’re hopeful that we can come to resolution on these issues very soon,” Recklaus said.

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