'Circus of blame': DuPage County Board members argue over lost marijuana tax revenue
Democrats and Republicans on the DuPage County Board sparred Tuesday over the chain of events that led to the loss of millions of dollars in uncollected tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales.
County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek avoided the hot seat, declining an invitation from board members to answer lingering questions about how the Illinois Department of Revenue never received paperwork from her office allowing DuPage to charge a cannabis tax.
Fellow Democrats sought to shift some of the focus away from the clerk's office and wanted to scrutinize county finance officials over why the revenue loss was not detected sooner.
County Board Chairman Dan Cronin fired back, accusing the clerk's defenders of what he called a "circus of blame."
The opening salvo of the day came from board member Liz Chaplin, who faulted Cronin's administration while reading a lengthy prepared statement at the start of a finance committee meeting.
"If anyone had been managing the cannabis tax project through to completion, DuPage would have not missed out on one single dollar of revenue," said Chaplin, a Democrat and the committee's chair.
The county missed out on up to $4 million in estimated revenue over the 18 months the tax went uncollected. DuPage was still receiving cannabis use tax dollars, which are distributed to all Illinois local governments based on population.
County board members back in October 2019 approved the retail tax on sales of recreational marijuana in municipal areas of DuPage. The ordinance directed the county clerk's office to send a certified copy of the document to the Illinois Department of Revenue so that the new tax could be collected.
At a finance committee meeting last September, county board member Brian Krajewski asked why the reported cannabis revenue seemed so low. The next day, finance department staff members discovered the state didn't have an ordinance copy and then sent a duplicate via FedEx. The 3% retail tax on municipal sales began at the start of this year.
"Whose responsibility was it to make the phone call or send an email to verify that the ordinance was received?" Chaplin asked.
The board received a May 9 memo from the county's chief administrative officer with a timeline of events and an analysis of the revenue loss.
"Because this was a new tax and IDOR does not share sales tax data, the finance department did not have benchmarks to use for comparison as to whether the county was receiving the appropriate amount of tax revenue," the memo states.
Chaplin called it a "shoddy report" that gave "almost none of the relevant information required to understand how such a massive revenue loss carried on for so long."
"The memorandum provides no information regarding any processes or procedures used by the county's administrative or financial staff to ensure that all county revenue streams are correctly accounted for," Chaplin said.
Her remarks prompted an angry response from Republicans. Cronin said a few county board members were attempting to deflect from a simple event: failing to properly deliver a document to the Illinois Department of Revenue.
"To try to twist that into a circus of blame and obfuscation is shameful," Cronin said. "But that's what certain board members here thrive on, and I think it's just pathetic."
Jim Zay, a Carol Stream Republican, noted Chaplin made no mention of Kaczmarek in her statement.
"Everyone else was blamed in this room except the clerk," he said.
According to the DuPage state's attorney's office, the county can't recoup the lost revenue because the tax was never collected and neither the state nor the county clerk has any record indicating the ordinance was filed with the Illinois Department of Revenue as required by statute.
"Under no circumstance in previous clerks' administrations has there ever been misplaced finger-pointing like we're seeing right now. It was her job to send the ordinance to Springfield, and she did not do that or can't prove that she did," board member Greg Hart said of Kaczmarek.
Cronin and Vice Chair Ashley Selmon sent a letter last week to Kaczmarek requesting that she attend Tuesday's meeting to answer questions about the process in her office related to the filing of the marijuana tax ordinance.
Kaczmarek declined the invitation in a letter to Cronin, saying the administration of the ongoing primary election demands her "full focus."
"The implementation and execution of DuPage County ordinances is a duty of the county board chairman, not the county clerk," Kaczmarek wrote. "The county board does not abdicate responsibility for the implementation of its own ordinances and resolutions simply by directing the county clerk to send out certified copies of those documents."
In a letter to the editor published in the Daily Herald Monday, Kaczmarek also claimed Cronin was trying to orchestrate a "display of political theater" at Tuesday's meeting.
"She says she won't participate in political theater. Well, which one is it, Madam Clerk? Is it you're too busy or you just don't want to come here?" Zay said.
Cronin said finance staff will review all county board resolutions and ordinances passed since January 2018 when Kaczmarek took office to "ensure that they have indeed been filed with the appropriate agencies."