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Why did Carol Stream tax hike succeed while others failed?
By Marco Santana | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/5/2010 12:01 AM

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A "no" vote from residents has left Villa Park scrambling to find money to pay for road repairs. The Winfield Public Library will remain in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act until officials can find a way to pay for an elevator.

And people in the southern part of Bensenville will have to figure out where their fire protection will come from after voters crushed a proposal that would have continued their service with Elmhurst Fire Department.

But voters in Carol Stream gave the park district $37 million to build a new recreation center, dog park and extend trails, among other things.

As many residents struggle to pay bills and generally distrust their government's ability to spend wisely, some may scratch their heads at the results in Carol Stream, where the proposal passed by a 57 to 43 margin.

But political science professor Stephen Caliendo said an aggressive grass-roots campaign - combined with the fact that Tuesday's election was a low-turnout primary - probably played a large role.

"It can make a huge difference, especially when you have low voter turnout," said Caliendo, an associate professor at North Central College in Naperville. "These kinds of initiatives and referenda can get lost on a big ballot. But this may have been one of the chief reasons that they went to the polls."

In the weeks leading up to the election, a group of Carol Stream residents formed "Neighbors for Carol Stream Parks." The group took control of a promotional push to get the referendum passed. Group members visited local community groups and placed lawn signs throughout the village.

They took literature from the park district's Web site and highlighted several talking points during their presentations. Among them was a park district pitch that the referendum would not increase the tax rate. The result was one of the few referenda to pass in DuPage County.

"It's not just amazing in the ($37 million) number but also because our larger context is that people are concerned about government spending and that government's gotten too involved," Caliendo said.

Parks Executive Director Arnie Biondo said the "Neighbors" group was one of the main reasons the district will get the money to improve the parks. But he also said park officials worked hard to be as forthcoming as they could about the referendum.

"I don't think it would have been possible to be more forthright with it," he said. "Instead of saying there was no tax increase, we said it's a zero-rate increase, because that's what it is."

The park district will refinance and extend existing debt. That means the tax rate will remain the same through 2030.

Biondo said the park district has wanted to replace the Aldrin Community Center for years and even took out a couple of engineering studies to determine whether renovation would help.

"The question becomes do you pour money into (Aldrin) or do you build new?" he said. Meanwhile, Villa Park voters rejected two proposals aimed at fixing and maintaining streets. Bensenville voters defeated its referendum for fire protection by an 87 to 13 margin.

And on Wednesday, officials at Winfield Public Library were still trying to determine why voters again rejected a request to borrow $1.8 million to improve handicapped accessibility and alleviate crowding.

Officials decided to seek the same request for the second time in less than a year because the facility at 0S291 Winfield Road doesn't meet requirements set by the Americans With Disability Act. The library, which opened in 1981, doesn't have an elevator.

"The board needs to sit down and put out their thoughts about things and then decide what they want to do next," library Director Matthew Suddarth said. "I think that at this point people are still a little sad and disappointed."

Suddarth said volunteers tried to get the word out about the need for the building upgrades. "I don't think it was a lack of awareness," he said. "But obviously there are people who don't see it the way we see it."

He said he "definitely" believes the economy played a role in the defeat at the polls. One concern about seeking the request in November is that the village might ask voters to approve a tax hike for road repairs.

Suddarth said he expects library board members to talk about the referendum defeat during their next meeting.

"But I doubt a decision will be made then," he said. "My advice to them would be to just take some time and think about things."

As Carol Stream starts its work on improvements, Caliendo said the results in DuPage County illustrate how difficult it can be to forecast results, especially with local-level issues.

"It's not necessarily the raw dollars but the perception of its worth," he said. "It matters the degree with which people associate the money with the desired effect."

Daily Herald staff writer Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.