'We're going to fight against it': District 15 says it'd challenge a Bears tax-financing district
Opposition to a tax increment financing district for the proposed Chicago Bears redevelopment at Arlington Park is growing, with the school district that would be most affected already raising concerns to Arlington Heights officials.
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said that if the special taxing mechanism is implemented -- where property taxes above a certain level would be diverted away from schools, as well as other taxing bodies, and into the Bears' proposed mixed-use project -- the district would need financial assistance to add classroom space to schools in nearby Rolling Meadows, or potentially even build a new school within the 326-acre site.
The shuttered racetrack property is entirely within the boundaries of the K-8 school district, which covers Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates, Inverness and portions of Arlington Heights, South Barrington and Schaumburg. With 15 elementary schools, four junior high schools and a preschool/alternative school, it's the second-largest elementary district in Illinois.
The Bears' preliminary site plan suggests a significant residential component, from higher-density, multifamily properties of four to eight stories closer to the Metra train station, to lower-density townhouses and multifamily units of two to four stories further south and east through the site.
Heinz said the housing could generate hundreds or even thousands of students.
"We want a seat at the table," Heinz said at a recent community meeting. "We're going to fight against it all being TIF'ed because we will need money.
"I've written a letter. I'm not a wallflower. I've written a letter to the mayor. Follow-up letters. They know what we're looking for. And whether it's land or income, we likely are going to need to build additions."
'A real concern'
Heinz's public comments -- made during an Oct. 6 presentation at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates to discuss the district's upcoming $93 million referendum -- followed her previous written communications to Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Village Manager Randy Recklaus. In both letters -- sent to Hayes in May and Recklaus in August -- she wrote that the establishment of a TIF district would be "a significant concern" for District 15.
"Based upon anticipated student generation and the need for capital improvements to serve those students, we would urge the village to look at other economic development tools rather than TIF to help facilitate the project," she told Recklaus Aug. 18. "Given the potential impact on District 15, locking up billions of dollars of (property value) in a TIF district for 23 years would be a real concern for our district."
Heinz's letter to Recklaus also sought specifics on the number of residential units being contemplated and the number of bedrooms, and property value projections.
Heinz wrote in an email to the Daily Herald that she is "pro-development." But, she said, "with opportunity also comes impact."
"My job is to make sure the impact is properly considered and addressed throughout the development process so that District 15 is prepared for potential changes and not negatively impacted by the project," she wrote. "District 15 taxpayers ... cannot be left to shoulder the costs of the development as it may affect our schools."
Heinz confirmed that the possibility of a TIF was mentioned during a virtual meeting she and Chief School Business Official Diana McCluskey attended over the summer to hear about the Bears' preliminary redevelopment plans. Hosted by the Bears and village officials, those in the Zoom room included team Chairman George McCaskey, President/CEO Ted Phillips and others from the organization.
Heinz and McCluskey also were among the hundreds at the Sept. 8 community meeting the NFL club hosted at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, where McCaskey and Phillips unveiled their ambitious $5 billion vision for the old racetrack grounds. The top Bears brass also made a pitch for public financing to help pay for site infrastructure costs outside the stadium, which they vowed would be privately financed.
When asked by an audience member at that meeting if a TIF could be part of the equation, Phillips said the team was still in the preliminary phases of looking at all possible financing options.
TIF impact on schools
The financing mechanism is among the possible "public-private partnerships" outlined in a nine-page draft predevelopment agreement between the Bears and village. The agreement -- scheduled for a village board vote on Nov. 7 -- also suggests other funding sources the Bears may request, including special service areas in which property owners within the areas pay an additional tax, special assessments, the creation of a business district with an extra sales tax, and a parking tax.
But it's the TIF that rankles school districts the most, since it ties up increased property tax revenues for 23 years -- and up to 35 years if Springfield lawmakers approve an extension. Schools rely on property taxes as their primary revenue source, especially compared to other governmental taxing bodies like parks and libraries that can tap other revenue streams.
District 15 takes the largest share of property tax revenues from the Arlington Park property, representing 36% of the racetrack's tax bill. It's currently paid by Churchill Downs Inc., which has a pending agreement to sell the land to the Bears for $197.2 million.
In response to an audience question at the Oct. 6 referendum meeting, Heinz said District 15 would stand to gain a "significant" amount of money with the redevelopment of Arlington Park if the area is not put in a TIF district.
"If they TIF it, we get money incrementally from the TIF, but it wouldn't be the windfall," Heinz said.
The village board earlier this month rejected a so-called anti-corporate welfare ordinance brought by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that has its Illinois state chapter office in Rolling Meadows, to keep tax money from helping any business, including the Bears. The board's unanimous rejection leaves open the door that the village could implement a TIF district, or provide other public support, for the Bears project.
Recklaus said at a board meeting last week that the village isn't suggesting or approving tax increment financing or other incentives as part of the preliminary agreement, but the document does indicate "the types of incentives that might be pursued and the conditions under which the village would discuss such things."
He said questions about how many students might live at the new development and other aspects about the proposal will be "reviewed the same way we review any project."
"School districts will be involved in that process, just as they always are for any development in our community," Recklaus said. "The process would be exactly the same as it would be for any other development."
• Daily Herald staff writer Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.