‘No pressure being exerted’: Arlington Heights mayor denies taking sides in Bears vs. schools tax battle

As the Cook County Board of Review closes in on a final decision that will likely hike the amount of property taxes the Chicago Bears pay at Arlington Park, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he’s not pressuring three area school districts to bend to the NFL franchise, or otherwise taking sides in their protracted battle.

Larry Rogers Jr. and George Cardenas — two of the three members of the elected panel that is reviewing the Bears’ property tax appeal — on Wednesday recommended a $124.7 million property value for the 326-acre site, which would translate to an annual tax bill of at least $10 million.

Samantha Steele, chairwoman of the board of review, recommended a $138 million value, yielding a tax bill of about $12 million.

A final determination is expected next week. Even then, the Bears could go to the state’s property tax appeal board within 30 days, or file a complaint in county circuit court.

The pending decision comes as Hayes fended off criticism from resident Keith Moens, a frequent critic and village board meeting attendee, that the village’s drafting of a memorandum of understanding among the parties was an effort to arrive at a lower property value, thereby subsidizing the Bears and diminishing public education.

Citing records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Daily Herald reported in December that village officials had worked for months behind the scenes to develop the memorandum with the Bears, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15. But the document — which resolves other issues related to the Bears’ proposed $5 billion redevelopment — hasn’t moved forward amid key sticking points on the assessment and tax payments at the sprawling property the Bears purchased a year ago.

“There’s no pressure being exerted by me or this village board on the school districts to come to an agreement with the Bears,” Hayes said at the board meeting Tuesday night. “We are doing all we can to encourage both sides to continue to talk to come to a reasonable solution that’s amenable to both sides. … There’s certainly no pressure being exerted on anybody.”

The board of review’s preliminary valuation numbers revealed Wednesday are less than Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s $192 million value, which the panel initially endorsed last week in an effort to get the Bears and schools back to the bargaining table. But the new figures are more than the $95 million settlement the schools and then-property owner Churchill Downs Inc. agreed to last year.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele

When the Bears and schools couldn’t reach agreement by Saturday, Steele said her staff went back to work to review the evidence in greater detail. They considered three appraisals: two from the Bears, which suggested values of $60 million and $71 million, and one from the schools that recommended $160 million. She said her staff analysts also evaluated the sales comparables presented in the reports.

They also took into account that demolition of all structures on the site — done with an eye to achieve a lower valuation and therefore pay lower taxes — wasn’t completed until December.

Kaegi’s assessment would have stuck the Bears with a $15 million tax bill. Last year, Churchill Downs paid nearly $8 million.

Hayes on Wednesday said he was hesitant to comment on the pending board of review decision, and what impact it might have on the Bears’ decision to relocate to Arlington Heights or stay on the Chicago lakefront.

But perhaps in a nod to the Bears’ argument, Hayes said the property is now vacant and won’t earn income for the foreseeable future. When the racetrack was in operation, Churchill paid $3 million in taxes, he noted.

  Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes, from right, and Assistant Village Manager Diana Mikula talk with Lee Twarling, the Chicago Bears’ senior vice president for fan/guest experience and stadium operations, at the IHSA girls flag football news conference Feb. 14 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. Paul Valade/

“I’m still hopeful that a resolution is going to occur,” Hayes said. “It’s a challenge. I’m disappointed that they haven’t come to a resolution yet, but I understand both sides’ positions, and we’re not taking a side either way, but we’re encouraging them to come to a resolution for everybody’s benefit. Because I do think that ultimately a stadium in Arlington Heights is going to be good for the Bears, the school districts, Arlington Heights and the entire region.”

While Bears President/CEO Kevin Warren’s public comments in recent weeks and months have talked up the positive attributes of the lakefront and what a new stadium there could mean, Hayes said he was grateful to get the team’s invitation to a news conference at Halas Hall last week, when girls flag football was announced as an officially-sanctioned Illinois high school sport.

Warren led off the event, and Hayes was the first to be introduced.

“It’s reflective of our very good relationship that we have with the Bears,” said Hayes, though he added, “We didn’t talk stadium at all that day.”

  Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes was the first to be introduced during a news conference last week at Halas Hall for the announcement of girls flag football becoming a sanctioned high school sport. Paul Valade/
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