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Allegations of Fraud Delay Tax Hike to Spruce Up Downtown Jeff Park

By  Heather Cherone Ted Cox and Alex Nitkin | November 16, 2015 12:02pm 

 Jefferson Park Business District
Jefferson Park Business District
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

JEFFERSON PARK — Allegations of fraud prompted city officials Monday to delay a vote on 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.

The delay comes after Jefferson Park resident Ron Ernst said last week during a public hearing at City Hall that some of the signatures required to create a Special Service Area along Milwaukee Avenue between Montrose Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway, as well as on Lawrence Avenue between Austin Avenue and the expressway were invalid.

Those concerns prompted the city's Law Department to delay a vote scheduled on the matter for Monday morning by the City Council Finance Committee, officials said.

Ald. John Arena (45th), who supports the tax increase as a way to bring new life to the Jefferson Park Business District, believes the delay of at least a month is a "prudent measure" in the wake of the allegations, said Owen Brugh, the alderman's chief of staff.

Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amie Zander said she did not believe any of the signatures were forged, as alleged by Ernst, who has been campaigning against the creation of a Special Service Area in Jefferson Park since it was introduced by the chamber in March.

"I don't think anything improper was done," Zander said. "People are grasping at straws to make the alderman look bad and the chamber look bad."

The creation of the Special Service Area in Jefferson Park had been endorsed by the Department of Planning and Development.

Zander said she began rechecking the signatures collected by more than 30 people Monday and comparing them with information provided by Cook County officials and found no discrepancies.

Brugh said the review by officials in the city's Department of Planning and Development was needed to "make sure the chamber didn't take any short cuts."

Both the current and former presidents of the Jefferson Park chamber asked city officials to reject its application to create a Special Service Area.

Former President Lionel Rabb changed his mind on the measure after he concluded it would be inappropriate to force homeowners to foot a portion of the bill for improvements designed to bring new life to the business district.

Rabb was replaced by Gale Street Inn owner George Karzas, who also initially supported the measure, but said Thursday the tax hike on Jefferson Park property owners would be too much for many to handle after the City Council approved the largest property tax hike in Chicago's history to shore up police and fire pensions.

Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association President Bob Bank said the tax hike would inappropriately force homeowners to foot a portion of the bill for improvements designed to bring new life to the business district.

Arena has said a Special Service Area is a good way to benefit the community, and praised the impact it has had at Six Corners in Portage Park.

There are five single-family homes within the boundaries of the Special Service Area, 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 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.

The proposal includes 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, officials said.

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

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