Deerfield officials weigh options as state budget talks continue

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Deerfield area taxing bodies are monitoring state budget talks and preparing for any funding

While state lawmakers attempt to come up with "grand bargain" as a way to end Illinois' budget impasse, 's governmental entities are looking at contingency plans in the event a local revenue source cannot be increased.

A version that has been floated includes Gov. Bruce Rauner's desire for a property tax freeze to go along with a proposed income tax hike. say the freeze is politically popular but would hurt local towns and school districts that rely on the money. Rauner has said if the state is going to increase income taxes, it also should provide relief for property owners who he says are being driven out of the state.

The village of Deerfield along with Deerfield Public Schools District 109, Township High School District 113, the Deerfield Park District and West Deerfield Township all rely on revenue from property taxes in varying degrees.

Those governmental units are at least considering the possibility of what action to take if the state imposes a property tax freeze before its May 31 budget deadline.

Under their current budgets, Deerfield gets 14 percent of its revenue from property taxes, according to Village Manager Kent Street. Park district Executive Director Jeff Nehila said 49 percent of the district's revenue comes from property taxes and 51 percent from user fees.

Schools are more heavily dependent on property taxes. District 109 Superintendent Michael Lubelfeld said between 90 and 92 percent of revenue is property tax generated. For District 113, which operates Deerfield and Highland Park High Schools, the number is 95 percent, according to Barry Bolek, the district's assistant superintendent for finance.

Though members of the are talking about a budget deal with the deadline a little more than two weeks away, a compromise between legislative leaders and Rauner does not appear near, as of press time.

Nehila is critical of the state's approach to balancing its budget by adding a property tax freeze. He said he does not see how it helps.

"A tax freeze does nothing for the state budget," Nehila said. "They need to work out their issues with a compromise."

Meanwhile, State Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) said by text there is no definite bill for her to consider as of May 11. She said discussions about a potential freeze are shifting.

"The bill continues to change from (a) two-year freeze to other time periods," Morrison said. "That bill is currently not tied to revenue reform. I do not really have a statement at this point until I have a definite bill for me to vote on."

Street said he does not know what the freeze would look like. He said rumors have surfaced over the last few years with varying ideas.

"Past proposals have said it will not apply to public safety or bond debt," Street said. "Until we know what it really means it is hard to comment on it. If it is frozen we will have to look at untapped revenue sources like we did this year with a food and beverage fee."

For the last two years, Deerfield's budget has specifically allocated money from property taxes to public safety and debt service, according to Street.

"That was done because we were wary of what the state might do," Street said.

Lubelfeld said a short-term freeze will not have a major impact on District 109 but anything lasting longer than two years will force a closer look at expenses and capital improvement projects in particular.

"If it continues we'll have to look at options and opportunities to spend less, aka cuts," Lubelfeld said. "We could increase the tax rate by referendum but the last thing I would want to do is go to the taxpayers."

As long as the potential tax freeze does not last longer than two to four years, Lubelfeld said the district can use reserves and continue to maintain an adequate fund balance.

A two-year freeze would cost Deerfield and Highland Park High Schools approximately $4 million in anticipated revenue, according to Bolek.

"We'll have to look at revenue and expenses to see how to balance the budget," Bolek said.

Nehila said another source of revenue for the park district had been grants from the state, but those are no longer available because of Illinois' financial crisis. He said a freeze would prompt a possible increase in user fees or perhaps dropping some programs.

"There is nothing specific as of now," Nehila said. "We'll look at every commitment. Capital projects may have to be delayed. We may have to defer some park improvement."

West Deerfield Township Supervisor Alyson Feiger said the township cut the tax levy last year and wants to do it again in 2017.

"We're not very concerned," Feiger said referring to a potential tax freeze. "We have large enough reserves if the need arises."

State Rep. Scott Drury (D-Highwood) did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve Sadin is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press. Chicago Tribune reporters Monique Garcia and Haley BeMiller contributed.

Deerfield officials weigh options as state budget talks continue

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Article Deerfield officials weigh options as state budget talks continue compiled by www.chicagotribune.com

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