Forest Park officials went to great lengths to block from the ballot a referendum on whether to get rid of video gambling in the village.
First, the local electoral board threw out a petition to place the measure on the ballot, concluding backers didn’t have the required number of signatures. When advocates again collected about 3,500 signatures to put the measure to voters, officials ruled that because six of the petition sheets were invalid, they would throw out all 276 pages.
But an Illinois Appellate Court reversed that decision in March, calling it “clearly erroneous.” Opponents of the ballot initiative appealed to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
So now, after several years and several thousand petition signatures, Forest Park residents will vote Tuesday on a binding referendum over whether to ban video gambling. If the yes votes prevail, Forest Park could become the first Illinois community that allowed video gambling to reverse that decision.
The measure is one of numerous referendums — many of them tax-related — that will confront voters on ballots across the Chicago area in Tuesday’s general election.
Two of the ballot initiatives with the most money riding on the results are for Harper College in Palatine, which is seeking $180 million for a major expansion, and for Maine Township District 207, which is asking for $195 million to upgrade its three high schools.
Another school district, Elmhurst School District 205, will ask for $168 million to construct two new school buildings and upgrade existing schools.
The Oak Brook Park District is seeking $18 million to buy vacant land from McDonald’s Corp., even though a homebuilder has already agreed to buy part of the former headquarters of the fast-food giant.
And in DuPage, Kane and Lake counties, residents will weigh in on a nonbinding referendum on whether to oppose a statewide property tax.
In near west suburban Forest Park, this isn’t the first time voters will be asked their opinion on video gambling. In a nonbinding referendum in 2013, residents voted by a 2-1 margin against such a gambling expansion in their community.
But bar and restaurant owners lobbied in favor of bringing in the gaming machines, saying they would boost profits and help compete with nearby towns, and the Village Council approved video slot machines in 2016.
Those who support video gambling say it has caused few problems and has generated needed tax revenue. State records show there have been 17 licensed video gambling sites in town, which have generated almost $2.7 million in net income and $133,000 in taxes for the village.
The leading proponent of video gambling is James Watts, owner of O’Sullivan’s Public House and chairman of Let Forest Park Grow — Vote No. The group has raised about $60,000 that it’s used in part to mail numerous flyers to residents urging them to keep video gambling — almost all of the money coming from out-of-town gambling companies, state records show.
Helming the fight against video gambling is Jordan Kuehn, a 30-year-old engineer. He said his group, Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming, spent most of its money on legal fees defending its petitions, leaving only about $3,000 to spend on the campaign.
Regarding all the efforts to keep the question off the ballot, Kuehn said, “What it says to me is that they’re scared of the way people are going to vote.”
He considers the slot machines tacky and not a good fit for the town, but mainly is dismayed that the Village Council ignored the residents. Other opponents say the addictive nature of the games preys on those least able to afford it.
Kuehn planned to be out the weekend before the election, knocking on doors and trying to make the case against slot machines. If the effort wins, it is believed it would be the first time a municipality that had video gambling voted to get rid of it.
Neither Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone nor the village administrator could be reached for comment.
The village’s referendum is also unusual in that the vast majority of voter initiatives are placed on the ballot not by citizens, but by taxing bodies seeking more money. The Illinois State Board of Elections lists 58 tax referendums appearing on various ballots around the state.
One of the biggest is in Maine Township, where School District 207 is asking for $195 million to help renovate its three high schools, including the replacement of original plumbing and electrical systems that date from the 1920s, ’50s and ’60s. The money would also help make the buildings wheelchair accessible and add security entrances with two rows of electronic remote-controlled locks. Maine West would get a new field house.
The cost to taxpayers would be about $346 per year for the owner of a home with a median value of $380,000, the district estimated.
“It’s up to the community to inform themselves and make the decision that’s best for them,” district spokesman Brett Clark said.
At Harper College, officials are seeking $180 million for three big projects. One is a university center, where students can pursue a new program for four-year bachelor’s degrees, in cooperation with DePaul University, Northern Illinois University and Roosevelt College.
The money would also go to renovating and modernizing 40-year-old buildings to expand education in two growth areas, health careers and manufacturing.
Lastly, $63 million of the proceeds would go to maintain and replace campus infrastructure including roofs, plumbing and heating and air conditioning.
The money would be borrowed as old loans are paid off, so tax rates would remain the same. If the measure fails, property taxes paid to the community college by the owner of a $250,000 home would decrease by $23 per year.
Advocates say such school construction projects are needed in general to make up for years of neglected maintenance, and to meet modern needs for safety, accessibility and the modern workplace.
Adam Schuster, budget and tax research director at Illinois Policy, a conservative advocacy group, said he took no position on specific referendums but said that Illinois has the second-highest property tax rates in the nation.
“The referenda are a symptom of the fact that local government spending is growing too fast,” he said. “Governments are not able to balance their budgets with normal property and sales taxes … Voters need to ask whether each project will add value and whether it’s needed.”
Also Tuesday, residents in DuPage, Kane and Lake counties and some other jurisdictions will vote on a nonbinding measure on whether to oppose the creation of a statewide property tax. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago proposed such a tax as a way to pay for crippling state debt, primarily for an estimated $130 billion in public employee pensions.
November 3, 2018 at 08:23AM