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West Town SSA Meeting Gets Heated Over New Tax Levy

By Alisa Hauser | November 20, 2013 12:58pm
 Emotions ran high at a community meeting Monday to discuss the renewal of a Special Service Area Taxpayer District in West Town.
Special Service Area (SSA) 29 Renewal Meeting
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WEST TOWN — A proposed renewal of a special tax levy that mostly pulls from residential property owners for the purpose of improving a neighborhood's business district has some West Town residents fired up.

At a community meeting this week, businessman Stel Valavanis, who is a member of the Special Service Area No. 29. advisory committee, pushed for a renewal of the levy, which is used for snow removal, decorative banners, branded garbage cans, street sweeping, facade improvement and street festivals, among other things.

Valavanis, owner of OnShore Networks at 1407 W. Chicago, said that city tax dollars do not always stretch to the local level and provide "limited funds for promotion of neighborhoods."

 A branded garbage can serviced by Clean Slate workers is one of several products and services that the Special Service Area Taxpayer commissioners spends taxpayer dollars on.  The services are considered "supplemental" and augment existing City services.
A branded garbage can serviced by Clean Slate workers is one of several products and services that the Special Service Area Taxpayer commissioners spends taxpayer dollars on.  The services are considered "supplemental" and augment existing City services.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

"The fact that we have to enact a tax to bring money in locally is unfortunate but when it's controlled locally we can make an impact," Valavanis said at the meeting, hosted by the West Town Chamber of Commerce at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2230 W. Chicago Ave.

The purpose of the gathering was to gain feedback from taxpayers on a proposed 15-year renewal of the West Town Special Service Area taxpayer district, which affects property owners living on thoroughfare streets such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Ogden, Ashland and Damen avenues.

The meeting drew about 30 people, though one resident opposed to the renewal charged that most who attended were city employees, consultants, members of the local committee that decides which vendors to use, and vendors themselves, including a man who provides snow removal to several Special Service Area districts.

The majority were "insiders," alleged resident Jack Perno.

"I feel like you are preaching to the choir and you brought along the choir with you," Carmine Macchiaroli, owner of an Ace Hardware at 1013 N. Ashland Ave. and several rental properties, told West Town Chamber of Commerce director Kara Salgado.

The proposed 2015 service area budget of $571,982 is overseen by a volunteer commission and managed by the West Town Chamber of Commerce.

The renewal also changes the borders of the district, adding residents like Macchiaroli, who estimated that his annual tax bill would increase by $2,500.

"I want to know how many people come to you and say 'Please raise my taxes,'" he said.

The property owners included in the expanded taxing area would see a 12 percent increase in their property tax bill, said Katharine Wakem, the West Town Chamber's Special Service Area program manager.

An owner of a residential unit located on a commercial strip in the district could pay as much as $460 more annually, the owner of a small multi-use building would pay a maximum of about $800, and a commercial unit owner would pay a maximum of about $1,100, according to data distributed by Kimberly Bares, a consultant hired by the West Town Chamber of Commerce to assist in the 15-month renewal process.

Wakem said an online survey about the renewal so far has attracted 180 responses. Of those, 63 percent live in the special services area, and 34 percent were property owners. Of the total responses "the majority were in favor," Wakem said.

Asked after the meeting about those who expressed misgivings about the SSA renewal, chamber director Salgado said: "You expect the haters to come out to these [meetings]. We are accustomed to working with them."

The new 2105 West Town district will now include Ashland Avenue between Division Street and Chicago Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue from Division Street to Erie, and Damen Avenue from Chicago Avenue to Huron.

Last October, a small but vocal group of property owners in one section of Damen Avenue gathered signatures of opposition from property owners on their street to be removed from the proposed future map.

Also taken off the future map is a section of Chicago Avenue between Western and California Avenue, due to an effort by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).

Reached by phone Wednesday, Maldonado said, "I support wholeheartedly SSAs. They provide the right service in the right economic climate."

But, he said, "I excluded portions of the 26th Ward because of bad economic times that property owners experienced as a result of the recession. It was not fair to add an additional tax levy to properties."

Maldonado added: "We received a lot of calls from property owners appreciating our decision."

West Town's SSA No. 29 is one of 47 existing districts in the city that have an aggregate budget of $26 million, typically spent on supplemental services such as maintenance, public way upkeep, safety, and facade improvements.

West Town's Special Service Area is one of four existing districts that will be coming up for renewal at the end of 2014, while the city also has plans to add five new Special Service Area districts.