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Harvey tax levy rejected by Cook County clerk in wake of chaotic meeting

Thursday, April 28, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Joe Mahr and Matthew Walberg

The Cook County clerk's office has quickly rejected a controversial mayor's attempt to levy property taxes against the wishes of the majority of his suburb's council members in what has become a highly unusual suburban political showdown.

The clerk's office said not enough votes were received to support the levy at a City Council meeting Monday night — further prolonging an already bitter political saga that the mayor has said could lead to massive layoffs.

For months, at meetings — like Monday's — often cut short by chaotic scenes and shouting matches, Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg and four aldermen have been at odds over one of the most basic functions of a local government: passing a levy for property taxes. Local governments must approve them annually, no matter whether taxes are lowered, raised or stay the same.

But this often routine duty has sparked a vicious battle between the mayor and a slim majority of the City Council in a suburb where Tribune investigations have documented years of insider deals that have drained the town of millions, sparking an FBI investigation.

Anti-Kellogg aldermen have argued they can't trust that a secretive Kellogg will spend the money wisely, while Kellogg has said he's the victim of a political vendetta.

This week's council meeting ended with the usual fireworks — and a plot twist.

The tax levy ordinance was quickly called for a vote after two anti-Kellogg aldermen had walked out of the meeting in protest and a shouting citizen was ushered by police out of the council chambers.

Two aldermen voted for the levy. Kellogg argued two other anti-Kellogg aldermen remained for the vote but didn't respond. Kellogg and his supporters said the lack of votes by those two counted as abstentions, and — calling it a 2-2 tie among aldermen — the mayor said he got to cast the tie-breaking vote for the levy.

But the anti-Kellogg bloc argued that the final two anti-Kellogg aldermen had left the room by then. Videos shot by Tribune reporters also show those two aldermen outside the council chambers at the time a vote was taken.

The county clerk's office didn't address that debate but said it was a simple question of math. The suburb has six aldermen and a mayor, and at least four are needed to approve a levy, not three. The county clerk, in a letter sent Wednesday to Kellogg, said the ordinance was "not a valid levy."

Kellogg's spokesman, Sean Howard, said Kellogg and his aides "strongly disagree" with the county clerk's determination. He did not immediately say Wednesday how the Kellogg administration would respond, except that the matter would be addressed "very soon."

Ald. Christopher Clark, a member of the anti-Kellogg bloc, applauded the county clerk's decision on an incident he said helped show how Kellogg "tries to skirt the process, the rules and possibly the law in order to get what he wants."

Clark said the bloc will push for a special City Council meeting Friday at which they'll attempt to pass a smaller version of the levy that funds only police pensions, fire pensions and debt payments, to ensure the city complies with any court-ordered payments after years of failing to properly save for pension payments.

He said the bloc believes there is enough money elsewhere in the budget that can be moved around for critical funding for police, firefighters and public works employees.

Amid years of insider deals draining millions from the city of 25,000 residents, the four dissident aldermen have argued that they can't approve a full, traditional levy because Kellogg refuses to show them how the money is being spent and outside government agencies refuse the bloc's call to intercede to force transparency.

Kellogg and his supporters have countered the money is spent wisely and the dissident bloc is playing dangerous politics that could lead to layoffs of half the suburb's workers.

State law says local governments must pass a levy ordinance by the last Tuesday in December. The county clerk's office extended that deadline more than four months — to this coming Monday for Harvey — on the chance the two sides could strike a deal. The clerk's letter Wednesday said the deadline still stands. But neither side has indicated they plan to meet.

Instead, reaction to the clerk's letter suggests both sides remain entrenched. Ald. Keith Price, who has pushed for the levy, called the anti-Kellogg bloc "ignorant," considering two of the aldermen previously agreed to pass larger levies under Kellogg than the one they're currently refusing.

"This is going to hurt the residents," Price said. "This doesn't hurt Mayor Kellogg. If he wanted to walk away now, he would probably make more money than any of us, period."

However, the dissidents countered that the time has come for what they argue is basic accountability — something on which they say they won't budge, even if it means no levy.

"The bloc is committed to transparency, oversight and accountability," Clark said.



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