The New Math: 66 < 60

The New Math: 66 by • October 15, 2007 • Printer-friendly

Scott P. RichertHow much would you pay for a library card? In Rockford, if you are not a resident, you have to pay $140 per year for the privilege of using the Rockford Public Library system. With six branches scattered throughout the city and over 400,000 volumes, most avid readers who aren’t relying on the library for scholarly research would get their money’s worth in a few months.
But what if you had to pay $4,197.24? And what if the cost of your library card were based on the assessed value of your house, so that, in all likelihood, it would rise every year?

That’s what one homeowner in Bradley Heights/Larchmont will have to pay if the city of Rockford succeeds in annexing the neighborhood—and that’s in addition to the actual tax levy for the library, which will amount to another $580.50 (approximately). Meanwhile, the 94 property owners in Bradley Heights/Larchmont will pay an average of $1,124.11 over the next year (as well as the actual tax levy) for the privilege of being able to check out the latest Dan Brown novel. That’s the difference between the taxes they would have paid if their neighborhood had remained an unincorporated area in Winnebago County (with a 2006 property-tax rate of 8.189 percent) instead of being forced into the city of Rockford (with a 2007 property-tax rate of 10.4709 percent), according to a spreadsheet put together by Bradley Heights resident Betsy Easton. (The tax rates are applied to equalized assessed value, which, in Illinois, is one third of market value.)

Now, to be fair, the city’s legal director, Patrick Hayes, in a form letter sent to Mrs. Easton and all other property owners in the Bradley Heights/Larchmont neighborhood, made it clear that

Becoming a resident of the City of Rockford has several benefits and services, including full-time police and fire protection, ambulance and paramedic service from the Rockford Fire Department; maintenance and repair of streets and snowplowing of local streets by the Rockford Department of Public Works; and a free Rockford Public Library card.

For an average of a little over $1,100 per year, these services might make for an attractive package, if the residents of Bradley Heights/Larchmont weren’t already receiving them from Winnebago County or Rockford Township—all, that is, except for the Rockford Public Library card.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of residents of the neighborhood have been strongly opposed to the city’s gracious offer to provide them with “free” library cards against their will. Patrick Hayes argues that the neighborhood is “eligible for annexation into the City of Rockford under Illinois State Law based on the fact that [it] is less than 60 acres and surrounded by the City.” Bradley Heights/Larchmont is indeed surrounded by the city of Rockford on all sides, and the Illinois Municipal Code does state that

Whenever any unincorporated territory containing 60 acres or less, is wholly bounded by (a) one or more municipalities, . . . (d) one or more municipalities and property owned by the State of Illinois, except highway right-of-way owned in fee by the State, . . . that territory may be annexed by any municipality by which it is bounded in whole or in part, by the passage of an ordinance to that effect after notice is given . . .

There’s a third detail to be considered, however: Is the territory of Bradley Heights/Larchmont really “less than 60 acres”? That, it appears, depends on who is doing the measuring, and with what purpose in mind.

Both the residents of Bradley Heights/Larchmont and Hayes agree that the neighborhood covers approximately 66 acres. And, under normal circumstances, 66 would be greater than 60. But with more than a million dollars in tax revenue over the next decade at stake, the city went looking for a way to make 66 be less than 60.

And, Hayes contends, they found it in a July 28, 2006, ruling from the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois. In that case, the city of West Chicago annexed a parcel of 62.75 acres by claiming that the area occupied by Route 64 (a highway owned by the state) should be excluded from the total. That brought it down to 57 acres and made it eligible for annexation. The appellate court sided with the city of West Chicago, pointing out that the Illinois Municipal Code requires a municipality annexing a parcel bounded by a state highway to annex the highway as well, “to prevent any question regarding jurisdiction, maintenance, financing, and traffic control once the annexation has taken place.”

That decision, Hayes argues, applies to the annexation of Bradley Heights/Larchmont by Rockford. Anyone who looks at a map of the area, however, cannot help but notice what would seem a salient fact: There are no state highways bounding the neighborhood. Nor, for that matter, are there any state highways running through the neighborhood. The nearest state highway lies to the west of the neighborhood, running through property already claimed by the city of Rockford.

Still, the functionaries at the city, well trained in the New Math in the Rockford public schools, did a few quick calculations and determined that the size of the neighborhood is really 56 acres. How did they arrive at that number? Simple: Hayes told them to remove all streets and rights-of-way from the total.
Problem solved. Now the 94 poor, benighted property owners in Bradley Heights/Larchmont can enjoy their “free” library cards! Those who had previously paid the $140 fee to obtain a card can now apply it to their $1,100 property-tax increase instead! It’s a win-win situation!

And I’ve got a state highway to sell you.

When Rockford Mayor Larry Morris­sey, who appointed Hayes, was elected, many of us hoped that we would see a change in business as usual down at City Hall. But Hayes notified the residents of Bradley Heights/Larchmont a mere six weeks before the annexation was scheduled to occur and, from the first correspondence, spoke of it not as a possibility but as a done deal. Jim Easton, Betsy’s husband, said that Hayes told residents that he understood their concerns, but annexation is in the best interests of the current residents of the city, so the city intends to exercise its legal right.

Often, when municipalities annex new developments, the corresponding increase in tax revenue is exceeded by the increase in expenditure on infrastructure and public services. But an established neighborhood such as this, which already has city sewer, its own independent water system, all the roads it needs, and only a handful of scattered lots without houses, is a ripe plum ready for the picking. Most of the increased property taxes paid by the Eas­tons and their neighbors will go to subsidize other neighborhoods elsewhere in the city—for instance, future developments annexed at a net loss.

The neighborhood is fighting the annexation in court, and, with so much tax money on the table, neither side is likely to settle for defeat. Thus, the case will probably end up before the Illinois Supreme Court a few years down the road. On the face of it, the appeals-court decision on which the city’s action rests is actually fairly restrained, concerned primarily with determining the original intent of the legislature. For instance, in referring to another case, the court notes that it “involved a private railroad right-of-way as opposed to a public highway” and argues that it does not apply because “the remaining sections of the Code failed to make any allusion to railroad lands as distinguished from other types of property.” Since the same appeals court will eventually hear the Bradley Heights/Larchmont case, that may be good news for the property owners, since township roads are clearly not state highways, nor are they mentioned in the section of the Illinois Municipal Code governing annexation.

Who will likely prevail? I have no idea. The daily newspaper, on the other hand, has already ruled for the city, declaring in an unsigned editorial that “A recent court ruling evaporated [the neighborhood’s] safety zone because it said streets and rights of way do not have to be included in the total acreage.” Either all the members of the Rockford Register Star’s editorial board suffer from a strange form of dyslexia that causes them to read “township road” wherever “state highway” appears, or they are taking their cues from Patrick Hayes. Neither prospect should give much comfort to those who long for a free and independent local press.

There are larger issues at stake here as well. In our post-Kelo world, municipalities have every reason to believe that they are the ultimate owners of all land within their borders. Depending on the outcome of the Bradley Heights/Larchmont case, they may have reason to believe that they hold similar title to all land that touches their borders. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to conceive of a situation in which a giant corporation known for its practice of leveling forests and fields to plant a big-box store in the center of a 60-acre parking lot might approach a city with a plan to annex a neighborhood, raze it, and hand the property over for redevelopment. All it would take to convince the city—and the courts—is to prove that the increase in sales-tax revenue would be even greater than the increase in property-tax revenue.
The Lords of Bentonville must be lying awake at night in anticipation.

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.

This article first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

abc123″>2 Responses<a href="#respond"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.