Leaders of Arlington Heights-area school districts engaged in a property tax battle with the Chicago Bears said Monday they’ve been unfairly portrayed as potentially scuttling the team’s possible relocation to Arlington Heights.
Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent Scott Rowe called the NFL franchise’s exploration of other potential stadium locales besides Arlington Park — including staying on Chicago’s lakefront — a “negotiation tactic.”
“It’s been a convenient argument to keep the conversation going about looking at both areas,” Rowe said of the property tax dispute. “And we’re not surprised one bit that all the other (suburban sites) have fallen off and now it’s just down to the best possible location for all they want in their current home, and a political environment they have to navigate through. I think that it was a convenient argument. And honestly, it stinks. We don’t like it, because it’s not true. But we understand it. And it was used in the process.”
Rowe and his counterparts in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15 met with members of the Daily Herald Editorial Board Monday afternoon. The meeting comes after Rowe’s comments at a District 214 school board meeting last Thursday, when he denied the three school districts are being “greedy” in the tax negotiation that’s lasted nearly a year.
“It’s due diligence,” District 15 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said of Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren’s pursuit of a new stadium site. “He’s advocating for his team and his organization the way we are for ours.”
A Bears spokesman declined to comment Monday evening, but Warren has previously denied that his talks with other municipal officials are a negotiating tactic to get a better tax deal in Arlington Heights.
The Bears closed on their $197.2 million purchase of the shuttered 326-acre racetrack on Feb. 15, 2023.
Rowe said he understands the Bears’ desire to get a tax break, but he hopes Warren and the public understands the schools’ position as a public entity funded by those taxes.
Though the Bears have sought to come to terms just over the 2023 and 2024 tax years — in hopes of paying about $5 million annually — the schools have sought higher amounts because of the long-term implications of property tax break legislation the team has pushed in Springfield.
The so-called Payments in Lieu of Taxes financing mechanism would freeze the assessment at the 326-acre property for up to 40 years, while annual tax payments to the schools and other taxing bodies would be subject to negotiation with the club.
“What we have to be careful of is the valuation of the property in the next couple of years could serve as the base valuation for whatever Springfield uses to build this PILOT legislation,” Rowe said. “If it’s too low, and the assessor says, ‘No, the property is going to be worth here,’ but a deal is entirely built on something else, there’s a gap. And that gap is concerning and could increase the tax rate on everyone.”
The school superintendents didn’t disclose exactly how much they’re seeking in annual tax payments from the Bears — the number could vary from year to year — but they’re believed to be negotiating over the time period between now and when shovels go in the ground. They held out hope for a settlement before the three-member Cook County Board of Review votes later this month.
“If (legislators) make a decision and base valuation on an agreement we make now, we just need to be set in our position so that we’re not regretting something later,” Rowe said.
District 211 Superintendent Lisa Small noted it’s not unusual for large property owners to appeal their taxes, and for school districts to intervene.
But what if the Bears don’t come to town and the sprawling property — where all the old racetrack buildings have since been razed — sits undeveloped, generating even less tax proceeds?
The superintendents said they want the Bears redevelopment to happen. But the land is also prime real estate, they believe.
“They’re not going to sit on $197 million worth of property for very long,” Heinz said.
There is agreement among the parties over funding for possible increased student enrollment generated by the residential component of the Bears’ $5 billion redevelopment. Heinz said an urban planner evaluated the team’s conceptual renderings and estimated 350 new students — enough for a whole new District 15 school.