LEMONT – Officials say a miscommunication between District 113A and Cook County led to more than $90,000 in back taxes the school district paid on unused property at 131st Street and Derby Road.
The district, which learned about the back taxes this February, paid the taxes in order to keep the land and is seeing whether it can recuperate any of the money, according to interim Superintendent Pamela Hollich.
Hollich said the almost 11 acres of farm land was purchased in 1989, with the idea of putting a school on it, but that plan never came to fruition because of declining enrollment.
As part of a lease agreement, the previous owners of the land paid rent to the district to live on and farm the land. The land was tax exempt until about 10 years ago.
The district is still investigating how the land lost its tax exempt status and why the district had not received any notification from Cook County, Hollich said.
Board of Education member Patrick Kerrigan said that the county claimed that the property lost its tax exempt status because the district was collecting rent from the farmer.
"What that ended up doing was causing the land to be a taxable burden to the school district," he said, adding that the property was meant to be a wash financially.
District Business Manager Barbara Germany said the district learned about the back taxes when someone tried to purchase the land. After, the board quickly approved an expenditure of $96,827.73 to pay the back taxes in order to keep the land, she said.
To prevent further taxation, the board approved a contract with the farmer of the land to remove noxious weeds from the property, which was determined to be cheaper than the district maintaining the land itself.
Kerrigan said this agreement shows the county that the school district is not gaining any commercial value from the land.
Al Malley was one of the board members who voted against the contract, saying he wanted to know more information before voting on an agreement.
"[The taxpayers] deserve answers before I'm voting on an agreement," he said.
The district will next investigate what it should do with the property.
"In general, we're looking at all assets to see what we will do," Kerrigan said. "At this point in time, I don't know of any specific plans."
It is unclear how the district could use the property.
"From what I'm being told, [the land is] not large enough to build a school, so we may have to look to sell it," Malley said.
Hollich said the district could still build a school on the land, but it would not be the same kind of building as Old Quarry Middle School or River Valley School.
She said the district could make some money now by selling the land, but the land is a valuable asset that the district still might need.
If the district wanted to purchase land in the future, it would not be for as low a price as what they paid for this land, she said.
"If the district makes that decision [to sell the land], it's a huge decision," she said.
Tuesday marked the first day Courtney Orzel officially started as superintendent for Lemont District 113A. Interim Superintendent Pamela Hollich will continue to work with Orzel during the next couple of weeks to help with the transition process.
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