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Planned Tax Hike to Spruce Up Jefferson Park Businesses Dropped -- For Now

 The chamber will take a more active role in trying to fill empty storefronts under its new leadership of Executive Director Amie Zander, bottom, and President Lionel Rabb.
The chamber will take a more active role in trying to fill empty storefronts under its new leadership of Executive Director Amie Zander, bottom, and President Lionel Rabb.
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JEFFERSON PARK — A plan to raise taxes in the Jefferson Park Business District by an average of $1,100 a year to fund an effort to fill empty storefronts and spruce up the commercial district along Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues is on ice — for now.

Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce President Lionel Rabb said he had changed his mind about creating a Special Service Area after homeowners objected to being asked to foot the bill for improvements designed to bring new life to the business district.

"I didn't want to ram it down people's throats," Rabb said. "Residents are overtaxed as it is."

The decision to withdraw the chamber's application to city officials — which had been in the works for months — came at an Aug. 13 meeting of the chamber's board. The issue was not on the meeting's agenda, and nearly half of the board's members were not present, although enough members were present for the vote to count, officials said.

A special meeting of the chamber's board is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday at Gale Street Inn, 4914 N. Milwaukee Ave., to reconsider the decision, said chamber executive director Amie Zander.

At issue are city regulations and a state law that require Special Service Areas to be contiguous regardless of the kind of properties involved. At two community meetings held in May, several homeowners said the tax hike would hurt middle-class residents and seniors on a fixed income.

The proposed district's boundaries would stretch between Milwaukee Avenue between Montrose Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway, as well as to Lawrence Avenue between Austin Avenue and the Kennedy.

There are five single-family homes within the boundaries of the Special Service Area as originally proposed, whose owners would see their taxes rise by about $300 a year. The owners of the 386 condominiums in the area would pay an additional $200 a year, officials said.

Chamber leaders asked city officials to change the rules and exempt those properties. City officials declined, citing the presence of residential properties in the more than 50 Special Service Areas throughout the city.

The tax hike was endorsed by 20 percent of the 703 property owners in the area, as required for approval by the city, Zander said.

Zander, who was recruited by Rabb to take over the Jefferson Park chamber in January, said the vote to withdraw the application for a Special Service Area just weeks before it was scheduled to be approved by the Chicago City Council left her "shocked and stunned."

"I don't understand what happened," said Zander, adding that she was specifically hired to implement and run a Special Service Area in Jefferson Park and replicate her success as the executive director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce. "This has been an expensive, time-consuming and grueling process."

Without the creation of a Special Service Area, the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce — founded in 1932 — could cease to operate, since it no longer receives approximately $30,000 in city funds that most chambers of commerce get to operate.

Missing paperwork and a lack of proper documentation for expenses led to the loss of those funds before Zander was hired, officials said.

The chamber could reapply for those funds in 2017, Zander said.

While its members pay dues, Zander said those funds would not be sufficient to have a full-time employee on staff.

Zander said she would have to reconsider staying with the Jefferson Park chamber if the plans for a Special Service Area are dropped, since that was why she was hired by the board.

The board was fully informed from the beginning of the process that a Special Service Area would have to include residential properties, Zander said.

In addition, the chamber may have to repay a $25,000 loan it used to pay consultants to create the application for the Special Service Area.

While Rabb said he was exploring options to have that loan forgiven, Zander said she was not sure that was possible.

The steering committee that had been working to establish the special service area set a tentative annual budget of approximately $220,000 to fund efforts to attract new businesses by hiring real estate brokers to market the empty storefronts as well as to push Jefferson Park as a great neighborhood to open a business, Zander said.

The initial budget would have spent the largest chunk of money — $82,000 — on fixing up public property and improving the area's aesthetics, officials said.

The owner of an average commercial property in the business district would see the tax bill rise $1,118 a year if the plan is implemented. The owner of an average mixed-use property — with both residential and business tenants — would pay an extra $560 year while the owner of an average residential property would pay an additional $170 a year, officials said.

The proposal for a Jefferson Park Special Service Area was based on the successful effort in the Six Corners Shopping District, which helped attract more than two dozen new businesses and begin to reverse decades of decline, officials said.

Six Corners property owners pay a similar amount in taxes to fund that area's special services, officials said.

"Everyone says they love Lincoln Square and Andersonville, and want Jefferson Park to be more like those neighborhoods," Zander said. "They have this tool, and can do things we can't."

However, Rabb said the notion that funds generated by the Special Service Area were a "pot of gold" that could reverse decades of economic decline in Jefferson Park was wishful thinking.

"This is lazy money designed to fill in the gaps left by the city," Rabb said, adding that businesses should work together to privately fund improvement and beautification projects. "This is a great opportunity for Jefferson Park businesses to figure it out themselves."

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