GENEVA – The dispute between Geneva School District 304 officials and a group of local property tax activists took a significant turn Monday, as more than 100 people turned out for a town hall meeting.
Bob McQuillan, one of the founders of Geneva TaxFACTS, who has been dogging school officials over inflated enrollment projections used in a successful 2007 referendum, hosted the meeting at the First Baptist Church in Geneva.
School officials responded to the enrollment issue, saying other sources were used in the referendum information and they did “nothing deceptive or unlawful” in the campaign.
In addition to the enrollment dispute, McQuillan focused on the district’s debt, saying officials sold premium bonds because the district was at its legal debt limit. State law does not count premium bonds when limiting a school district’s debt, he said.
So instead of an $80 million bond issue, McQuillan said the premium bonds put the district’s true loan cost at $112 million. The higher-interest bonds, McQuillan said, cannot be paid off early to save money, putting the district’s debt at $305 million.
“The resulting bond is now an alarming burden to taxpayers,” McQuillan said of the debt payments. “This was legal, but was it explained to the community?”
McQuillan called on the audience to work to reduce the district’s operating expenses, including finding new revenue streams, so residents can stay in their houses.
He recommended reducing spending by 5 percent a year for three years, then allow the spending to come up by 2 percent a year.
McQuillan also called for teacher contract talks to be done in the open instead of behind closed doors.
“Nobody wants to leave,” McQuillan said. “I’ve been here 15 years. It’s my hometown. And I don’t want to be pushed out of my house.”
McQuillan said the TaxFACTS group will offer a way to calculate property tax increases on its website, www.genevataxfacts.org, by Friday.
A guest speaker, Bruno Behrend, called the use of premium bonds “legalized money laundering” and said the Legislature should make them illegal. Behrend is an adviser to a group called For the Good of Illinois and the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank.
Resident Kate Bochte challenged TaxFACTS members and supporters, saying officials were not responsible for the housing crisis that hit in 2007.
“I wonder why the enrollment projections were too large,” Bochte said. “The whole nation has experienced a housing bubble and a housing boom and a housing bust. Developments that were planned never came about. And it’s the school board’s fault that they did not see it coming?”
Bochte said they were arguing “balls and strikes.”
“If you want to make a difference in your home values or in your tax bills, you need to start swinging for the fences,” Bochte said. “And how do you do that? Just like Bruno said, you focus on the state.”