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La Salle County wary of committing funds to benefit Utica school

The building the Waltham School District plans to construct to replace its two existing buildings if special funding can be arranged.
The building the Waltham School District plans to construct to replace its two existing buildings if special funding can be arranged.

A La Salle County Board committee has balked at the proposal county taxpayers subsidize the construction of a new public school for Utica.

The Waltham School District plans to build a new $9.5 million school for all the district’s students. It would be located across from the fire station south of the “four corners” at Route 178 and U.S. 6.

The new school would replace two existing schools, the south building in downtown Utica that would be sold and the north building on 33rd Road, which is in need of repairs, that would be demolished.

By referendum in 2016 the single school plan was endorsed by residents — but not a property tax increase.

The district does not have the authority to exceed more than $6.8 million in debt — nearly $3 million short of the needed amount.

But, in a unique solution, legislation supported by State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, and State Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, allowed future revenue from three tax increment financing districts in the school district — instead of general school district property taxes — to repay the cost of building the new school.

With a TIF district, new tax revenue generated by a development gets earmarked for special purposes, instead of being divided among other local governments like other property tax revenue.

The TIF districts involved were created in the mid-1990s and are due to expire within a year or two.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the County Board’s TIF Committee, Attorney Herb Klein and Waltham Superintendent Kristine Eager asked the county to agree to an extension of the TIF districts so the funds would continue to flow and could be used to pay for the new school.

Other affected taxing bodies are favorable to the plan, he said.

“That would basically pay the bond payments for our new building without burdening our taxpayers,” Eager said. “Without the new building, we’re probably going to have to burn our taxpayers through the issuance of ($4 million in) life safety bonds.” Those would be repaid by local property taxes.

Committee members seemed concerned about the proposal.

They pointed out the expiration of the TIF districts would provide extra needed revenue to the county.

“No disrespect to the superintendent, but I cannot justify in my mind affecting 100,000 other (La Salle County) residents pay for a Waltham school when the residents of Waltham said, ‘Sure, build your school — but we’re not going to pay for it,' ” said Allen Erbrederis, R-Somonauk, the committee chairman.

Erbrederis also noted he felt the issue was being rushed in order to get the county board’s approval at its April meeting, and that he wanted a review of the financial impact to be performed by the county treasurer.

The committee adjourned without taking action, although there likely will be further negotiations. However, the followup legislation must be approved by the state legislature before it adjourns in May, or the building project may be stalled.

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