Property owners in four Lake Forest subdivisions - Amberly Row, Middlefork Farms, Regents Row and Willow Lake Farms – are paying a special service area (SSA) tax to the city to benefit School District 67, basically duplicating what has already been paid by developers in impact fees, said Howard Handler, government affairs director, with the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors (NSBAR).
"I'm not here just to educate you," Handler told more than 30 residents at Wednesday's forum at Elawa Farm. "I'm here to say if you want to do something about it, it's unfair and unjust. The school district could stop levying the SSA."
While some of the SSA's have been in place for at least a decade, newer residents may be unaware of the special tax, listed as SSA 15, 33, 34 and 35 (for the above subdivisions) on property tax bills. The objection, Handler said, is that the developers already pay impact fees "which are extremely high... and somewhat fabricated" to the city to offset the "impact" of additional students on the school district.
However, he said if you look at the school district's website, it shows that enrollment is declining sharply.
According to a NSBAR release, the SSA's (ranging from $479 to $780 per unit for 20 years) for the four subdivisions are supposed to finance facility improvements "directly attributable to the subdivision," but have no listed purpose. It appears they are being collected "not out of any real need to accommodate new students as a result of development, but rather as a specious means to generate revenue."
In response, District 67 Superintendent Harry Griffith said that as impact fees are a one-time payment, the SSA's were enacted in the mid 1990s during a population surge and directed at repayment of a 20 year, multi-million dollar bond issue. The exact figure was not available.
Though Griffith said enrollment has declined in the last two years, around 1994-95, "we experienced an explosion of growth," he said. "It helped us expand our schools. Construction was related to the growth as we had to add classrooms for this."
Since then, he said "every new subdivision" is part of the SSA, which homeowners by law must be told about at the time of their home purchase and is identified on their tax bills. Notifications were sent out and public hearings were held during the initial proceedings, he said.
School districts can't levy the SSA tax themselves, which must be approved and enacted by the Lake Forest City Council. Handler said residents can request the SSA be rescinded and to him, it seemed that city council members were open to discussing the issue, though that doesn't mean any further action will be taken.