DeKalb residents turn up by dozens to urge School District 428 to lower property taxes

DeKalb District 428 staff propose new property tax collection option, set for Dec. 12 vote

DeKalb resident and local businessman Steve Irving speaks at the Nov. 30, 2023 special meeting of DeKalb School District Board of Education.

DeKALB – Dozens showed up recently ahead of an expected December vote to urge the DeKalb School District 428 to lower property taxes amid a proposal put forth by the district that would have seen taxpayers pay hundreds more on their bills.

A new proposal has since been put forth that would, if approved, see taxpayers pay more than last year but a fraction of what was initially proposed, according to estimates provided by the school district.

Several residents who took to the podium with public comments shared a common refrain: They urged the school board to bring tax relief instead of a proposal which, if approved, would see homeowners paying hundreds more on their 2023 property tax bills than last year.

Board Vice President Steven Byers made a plea to the board, asking his fellow board members to come up with a proposal that would ease taxpayers’ bills.

“When our community shows up in support or opposed to something, that really means a lot for those of us that have been elected,” Byers said.

The property tax levy is a collection tool used by units of government to collect revenue from homeowners’ property tax bills. Public school property taxes generally account for the majority of residents’ tax bills.

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes also attended, echoing comments made in November calling for the district to change its proposed tax levy plans so that homeowners won’t be so burdened. Barnes has argued that DeKalb taxing bodies should take advantage of recent economic growth to lower the city’s tax rates without hurting municipal budgets.

“How can you all benefit from this unprecedented historic economic development, the increased levies and make sure that all of us that live here, supported the schools many times in the past, new schools, new initiatives?” Barnes said. “How can we make sure that you hold us harmless so we benefit as well from this economic development? So, I challenge you to hold the taxpayer harmless.”

In a statement issued by the district last week, DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said district staff have “thoroughly vetted” its tax proposals to ensure students and employees are supported.

“We needed to be certain that the option we all were hoping for to hold taxpayers harmless this year was indeed feasible and allowed us to continue to take care of everyone,” Garcia-Sanchez said in a statement provided by district spokesperson Rita Elliott. “We are committed to closing learning gaps, increasing opportunities for our students’ success, and strengthening our district. We are grateful for the resources our community provides us to do this work in supporting our future generations.”

No vote on a final tax levy was held during the Nov. 30 meeting. A school board vote is expected Dec. 12, however, which also will offer the public another chance to weigh in.

DeKalb School District 428's proposed 2023 property tax levy options, shared by district spokesperson Rita Elliott to the Daily Chronicle on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. A public vote on the levy is expected Dec. 12, 2023.

What’s the new number?

The district has proposed a new tax rate option for its levy: 5.52% compared to 5.98% which was put forward as an option in November, down slightly from a 6% rate in 2022.

According to district estimates, under the new proposed rate, a DeKalb homeowner who’s home is worth $375,555 in 2023 would owe $6,579 on their 2023 property tax bill compared to $6,598 in 2022. That’s a difference of $20. Previous district calculations used property values from 2016 in its estimates.

DeKalb resident Bill Feithen said he believes the district has gravely mistaken the taxpayers and their interests in reference to its former property tax proposals.

“I don’t know how you can justify increasing by the amount that you’re proposing,” Feithen said. “What residents do understand are dollars and cents. Are my property taxes rising or going lower? If they are rising, is it a reasonable increase or an outrageous increase?”

DeKalb resident and local businessman Steve Irving said he believes the district – which has identified a $33 million plan for a new elementary school as a 2024 budget priority – should include a diversity of voters’ voices on their spending plans. Irving recommended a referendum instead of a property tax bill increase.

“If part of this property tax increase is to help pay for that new school, I think it’s really an under-handed deal to choose that choice to build it there without a referendum and then increase the property taxes by a huge amount,” Irving said. “It’s basically sidestepping everybody sitting here that had a decision to be allowed to make a decision on how much money to be spent on that project.”

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes speaks as City Manager Bill Nicklas looks on during the informational meeting Thursday, May 18, 2023, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb. The meeting centered on the the proposed plans for the vacant lot on the corner of Blackhawk Road and Hillcrest Drive in DeKalb.

In March, the district approved a $1.86 million lease-to-purchase agreement with Northern Illinois University as the latest step in a $33 million plan to turn NIU’s former School of Nursing building into a new elementary school. Officials have said a school is needed to help balance enrollment size and student-to-teacher ratios. District staff have said the plan won’t include a referendum.

Armir Doka, the district’s director of finance and business, said the district needs to think long term about its needs.

“As a financial officer, I want the sustainability in the revenue to be captured at the right amount,” Doka said.

In recent years, the city has seen a wave of activity and more revenue come with new south side developments such as the Meta DeKalb Data Center, retail giant Amazon, Kraft Heinz, Ferrara Candy Co. and more.

Board member Amanda Harness disagreed with Doka.

“I mean even holding them harmless, we’re benefiting from $9 million increase over this year what we had,” Harness said. “That is $9 million we probably wouldn’t have if all of this [development] wasn’t going on at the south side of town. So, with that, we need to start being more thoughtful in our spending.”

Board member Christopher Boyes questioned what’s the best course of action to take to preserve the district’s long-term financial sustainability going forward, while also ensuring the city’s ability to attract businesses to town.

“They’re not looking at how much the school district is choosing to abate after the fact,” Boyes said. “They’re looking at what is the percentage on paper that they filed with the county they’re going to charge us when they choose to come here. Our city manager is here. What would you say working with the businesses that come to town are looking at?”

City Manager Bill Nicklas spoke during the meeting, arguing that lowered tax rates are a way to entice economic development, part of a goal identified by Mayor Cohen Barnes since he took office in 2021. Facebook’s parent company Meta, for example, was given a 20-year, 55% property tax abatement plan approved by the DeKalb City Council and neighboring taxing bodies in 2020.

“They’re interested in location, access, the many parts of our community that we’re happy to talk about,” Nicklas said. “But when it comes to taxation, they only talk about five things universally up until today. They feel that our aggregate rate is too high, which is why they ask for 50% abatement.”

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