Cherry Valley objectors say ‘no’ to SSA tax
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Feb. 5, Cherry Valley residents Theresa Fernbaugh, Colette Rudis, Bonnie Whitmer and JoAnne Hudson delivered petitions to the village clerk in an effort to halt a tax on residents and businesses within a special service area (SSA).
SSAs are designed to fund infrastructure or maintenance costs for designated areas within a village by taxing only those areas.
The Village of Cherry Valley boasts “no property taxes,” but those within the SSA say that’s at their expense.
The village is planning a $1.6 million bond-financed project for improvements to the 43-acre Cherry Valley Regional Storm Water Detention Facility, which was built in 1991.
The detention facility is bounded by Harrison Avenue, Swanson Parkway and U.S. Route 20. It serves the SSA—the village’s drainage basin—which reaches as far north as Newburg Road, as far east as I-39 and as far west as the SouthVale and Swanson Park subdivisions.
Although the bulk of the tax would be paid by businesses operating within the SSA, including CherryVale Mall, residents living in the SSA could see hundreds of dollars more in taxes each year.
The SSA was established in 1994 for flood control, but the petitioners argue they’re being singled out to bear a burden that should be more equitably shared by the entire village, or by those contributing to the runoff that has led to the problem.
“We want the flooding problem fixed, but it’s a bigger problem than just for the village,” Fernbaugh asserted, pointing to other sources of runoff. “We have the quarry on Mulford Road [in the City of Rockford]. …We have Mulford Wildwoods, which is the township. You have Peterson Meadows [Retirement Community, 6401 Newburg Road]. Even if you’re going up Perryville, up towards Lundgren Camera from CherryVale, you see all that water’s coming down this way.
“We want to stress working together and trying to get the problem fixed, instead of just getting a chosen few people that are paying for it,” she added. “This [detention facility] land belongs to the Rockford Park District and the Village of Cherry Valley. Why is it only 20 percent of the village is paying for a hundred percent of the problem?”
Thus far, the village has not approached the Rockford Park District with a request to share the cost, according to Capital Planning and Management Deputy Director Laura Pigatti Williamson.
“As a taxing body ourselves, we would not be part of the SSA,” she said in an e-mail. “Rather, it is a special assessment that is applied to private property owners. As a park district, our role would not be in the arena of storm-water detention, but rather providing parks and recreational opportunities. Also, we handle our own storm-water detention on-site for our facilities. The detention requirements for the multi-use path would have been accounted for when it was constructed.”
Although much of the runoff is known to come from outside of Cherry Valley, village leaders note they cannot implement a tax on areas outside of their jurisdiction.
Fernbaugh: ‘We’re not finished yet. I know that.’
By law, the petitions must have valid signatures of at least 51 percent of the SSA’s property owners, and at least 51 percent of the voters in the taxing district. The petitioners believe the 677 signatures submitted far exceed those requirements.
Meantime, village officials are reviewing the submitted petitions to determine whether the signatures meet the statutory criteria to block the tax for at least two years.
If the petitions meet legal requirements, a referendum for the necessary improvements could be placed before Cherry Valley voters as early as this fall, but village officials hope it won’t come to that.
Asked what other options are available, Village Administrator David Nord responded, “Not a great deal.”
Nord indicated it is conceivable state or federal grants could be secured, noting talk of another possible stimulus package by the federal government.
“Really, those are the only other options we’ve got,” he said. “Otherwise, the repairs are gonna have to sit. And when we re-evaluate the cost two years from now, I’m sure they won’t have gone down.”
Nord reported the village has begun dialogue with Winnebago County to discuss other possible options.
Fernbaugh, a village resident for 13 years, is a union electrician who has been laid off for the past eight months. She’s also hopeful the village will find a way to pay for the needed upgrades that’s not solely on the backs of those within the SSA.
“I can’t afford another $300 on my taxes when I’m out of work,” she argued. “If they spread it across the board, instead of my taxes…going up anywhere from $250 to $300 in a year, [then] everyone’s taxes would only be hit by…$10 or $20, or something like that, to come up with the money.”
Fernbaugh, Hudson, Rudis and Whitmer decided to start their petition drive after a Dec. 9, 2009, hearing regarding the proposed SSA tax.
Jim Stevens, village attorney, offered to help objectors with the proper wording for a petition, but the petitioners feared the village may not be the best source of advice in the matter.
Fernbaugh explained Stevens had suggested a single petition, but that objectors sought a second opinion from those involved with a similar plight in McHenry County.
“Johnsburg, Ill., kinda had the same case, so we spoke with the people who went through that,” Fernbaugh said. “They kinda helped us out and said, ‘No, you better have two different petitions.’”
Last April, a court struck down an SSA ordinance to fund a $10 million sewer project in the Village of Johnsburg. The ordinance had been passed by the Village Board, despite “town-wide disapproval,” according to a report in the Northwest Herald.
In the Johnsburg case, objectors to the SSA submitted petitions opposing the SSA tax, but village leaders argued the number of valid signatures fell short of the 51 percent requirement.
Despite a judge’s ruling to void the ordinance, based on a determination that the 51 percent threshold had been satisfied, the village is appealing the decision.
A similar petition drive against an SSA in Wonder Lake resulted in defeat for objectors, but state Rep. Jack Franks (D-63) told the Northwest Herald the law makes it too difficult for petitioners to prevail against SSAs.
“The issue that really gets me is what [you] have to do if you want to object to it,” Franks said. “You have to prove a negative. It’s the only thing I can think of in American jurisprudence where you have to prove a negative.”
Although she remains optimistic a more just funding alternative can be found for Cherry Valley’s flood-control woes, Fernbaugh predicted: “We’re not finished yet. I know that.”
She pledged, however, to keep up the fight on behalf of those in the SSA targeted for the tax.
“We want it to be fixed,” she said, arguing the project cost should be more widely shared. “I’m game, but I’m not there to be taken advantage of.”
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