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Johnsburg residents question funding source for SSA appeal case

JOHNSBURG – Residents in Johnsburg are asking who will pay for the village to challenge the court ruling that killed Special Service Area No. 23.

The answer is unclear and might be related to a state-level battle over a bill written to change the way such special taxing districts are established.

State law allows municipalities to create special service areas, or SSAs, when they need funding for infrastructure projects that aren’t townwide. In McHenry County, it’s an approach that’s been used for everything from sewer projects to making sure that the lawn in a cul-de-sac stays trimmed.

“It’s a way to finance a public infrastructure improvement that allows the local property owners who benefit from that improvement to pay for it,” said Dennis Sandquist, director of McHenry County Planning and Development.

People living within SSAs pay more on their property taxes for a period of time, typically 20 years, until bonds issued to pay for projects are repaid.

To stop a town from enforcing an SSA, residents must generate a petition with signatures from 51 percent of the property owners of record and 51 percent of the registered voters within the special service area who oppose the tax.

But state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said residents shouldn’t be forced to prove that they don’t want to pay higher taxes. He has proposed legislation that would shift the job of generating a signature petition to taxing bodies.

“It would require the people who are trying to raise taxes on the citizens to prove that 51 percent of the people want their taxes raised,” Franks said.

The Johnsburg Village Board officially has opposed Franks’ legislation – and so has a Springfield lobbyist group, the Illinois Municipal League. Towns throughout the state pay membership to the league, and the organization, in turn, serves as a research and advocacy hub for local governments.

For example, Johnsburg is a member of the league and pays annual dues of $639, said Larry Frang, the league’s executive director.

Johnsburg officials occasionally notify the league when they take positions, such as when Village President Ed Hettermann and Trustees Bill Sandell and Bruce Bennett carbon-copied the league on a letter opposing Franks’ effort, Senate Bill 1555, in May, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request by the Northwest Herald.

Frang said the league opposed Franks’ legislation because it would cripple towns’ ability to provide additional services to a limited group of residents.

“That would be like, ‘Let’s elect a president by going out and circulating a petition. If there’s 300 million people in the United States, whoever can get signatures of 150 million plus one, he’s the president,’ “ Frang said.

Franks said the league’s opposition is broader than that.

“They’re really not on the side of the little guy,” Franks said. “What they like to see is having municipalities have unfettered ability to raise taxes on people.”

But some residents have speculated that the league’s ties to Johnsburg are more specific. Rumors are circling around town that an outside group, such as the league, will pay for the village to appeal the court decision that overruled SSA No. 23.

“Whoever is footing the bill for the appeal is willing to spend a great deal of money, time and effort to make sure Johnsburg wins and the law is preserved in its current form,” said Mike Brown, a Johnsburg resident.

Brown said he thought that the league would pay for the appeal based on a conversation he had with Trustee John Huemann several weeks ago.

“I initiated the question, ‘Is the Illinois Municipal League paying for the appeal,’ and he acknowledged that they were,” Brown said. “If I misunderstood, it’s because I misunderstood John.”

Another resident, Charles David, said he was with Brown and Huemann when the conversation took place in May. He submitted a letter to the Northwest Herald indicating that the conversation took place and that the league had a role.

“A Johnsburg village trustee stated to me during an informal conversation I had that the motivation behind the appeal is the Illinois Municipal League and the current village attorneys who pushed for it,” David wrote.

But Huemann, who voted against appealing the court decision, said he never told any residents that the league or any other organization would pay for the appeal.

“There are a number of potential organizations that could possibly offset these costs,” Huemann said. “The IML was one of them, [but] I never stated that the IML specifically by itself was going to do this.”

Huemann said he suspected that when organizations that potentially could pay for the appeal were named, residents latched onto the league and possibly misunderstood the relationship.

He said he didn’t know how the appeal would be funded, but that Village Attorney Michael Smoron assured officials that it wouldn’t be at the expense of the village.

President Hettermann confirmed that.

“We’ve been guaranteed by our legal firm that we will not pay any attorney fees to defend the appeal,” Hettermann said last week.

Then who will pay for the appeal?

“I have no idea,” Hettermann said. “It’s not like I asked, ‘OK, who’s paying for it.’ It has nothing to do with it.”

Hettermann was adamant that he hasn’t had any conversations with the league about funding the appeal or with any other organization.

Frang said the IML didn’t fund municipalities in lawsuits at all, but occasionally would submit briefs in support of towns when they were amidst a court battle. He denied any involvement in Johnsburg’s appeal.

“We’re not involved in this,” Frang said. “And we would never file one of those [briefs] if the city didn’t want us to file.”

Smoron said he offered to handle the appeal without charging attorneys fees, no strings attached, because it won’t be as involved a process as the initial SSA trial.

“Let me be very clear. I’m not charging the village any attorney fees. No one has paid me any attorney fees,” Smoron said. “What people don’t realize is that the appeal is not going to take the almost two years it did in this case to get to trial.”

Besides, he said, the appeal is more about the decision’s implications on overall SSA laws than SSA No. 23 specifically.

“I think what the village would like to get is some clarification [to] some [questions] that were left unanswered from the trial about how to proceed in connection with SSAs,” Smoron said.

Huemann said the law wasn’t the only item that needed clarification in Johnsburg.

“With all the venom that’s been spewed in this village for the last two and a half years, there’s a lot of work that has to be done to get some credibility back in the fold here,” he said. “This has all got to get sorted out, and this is not an easy process.”

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