Jan. 31 --About a dozen Lemont residents trudged through the snow, clipboards in hand, asking their neighbors to sign a petition so they could get a vote on the mayor's $21 million sports complex plan. They gathered at a local pub to count the signatures, they said. And when someone shouted that they had collected 1,657, the room cheered. The tally was far more than the number needed to force a public vote on the project's funding plan. "We were excited because we thought we actually did something," said Jim Ladas , 65. Yet there will be no vote. Instead, Lemont officials are revising the financing for the sports complex in a way that stops local voters from getting a direct say. The maneuver has dumbfounded project opponents, who fear their southwest suburb of about 16,000 could become another cautionary tale of public development deals gone wrong. They point to Bridgeview , where a previous Tribune review found heavy financial losses and rising property taxes after local officials had promised that a new soccer stadium would pay for itself. At the very least, the Lemont Sports Complex is turning into a case study in how local officials can easily find ways around putting big projects to a vote before taking on big debts. "We don't have control of our government," said Rick Ligthart , 61, of Lemont . "Our government has control of us." Lemont Mayor Brian Reaves says there's no time for a public vote -- which would have come in March. At the same time, he cautions residents that the project is still very tentative, requiring numerous meetings and contracts signed before shovel hits dirt. "We would lose a full season of play time and revenue," Reaves said. Most Chicago -area residents live in municipalities where officials can borrow as much as they want without putting such deals to a public vote. But Lemont residents are supposed to get a more direct say in how their elected officials tax and borrow because, as a small suburb, they never approved granting officials such sweeping power, called home rule. When that was on the ballot in 1997, residents overwhelmingly voted it down. Under Illinois law, residents in such towns have the power to force a referendum if a proposed borrowing deal could bypass property tax caps to pay off the debt. And Lemont residents did that. But officials in those suburbs still can avoid a referendum, and keep local taxpayers on the hook, if they borrow money by pledging other types of taxes, such as sales or utility taxes, to pay back the loan, as long as they don't break the property tax cap. Lemont leaders are looking at taking on debt and pledging taxes other than property taxes for the sports complex. The vision In Lemont's small downtown area, old-fashioned street signs direct visitors to quaint buildings along railroad tracks off the Illinois and Michigan Canal . Officials say they want the sports facility to draw more traffic to those businesses. The 26-acre indoor and outdoor sports complex would rise on land once used as an oil transfer facility, property owned by the region's sanitary district. The complex would include multiple fields intended to draw youth travel and club teams in a variety of sports from across the region. "It would be a destination," Trustee Paul Chialdikas said. "It draws in parents. It draws in families." A market study last year projected the facility would draw a half-million people a year and generate an extra $100,000 to $200,000 in sales tax revenue. Village leaders said the project will make enough money to pay off the debt. "I have children involved in sports," said resident Mark Hinkle , 45, who favors the project. "I go to facilities outside of Lemont . I see how big they are. I think it could be a success for the village." Lemont isn't the only community with such a vision. Just 6 miles away, ground was broken over the summer on the $10 million Romeoville Athletic and Event Center. About 7 miles away, Woodridge is planning to build its own athletic recreation center. But recent history is rife with examples of rosy projections falling short and costing taxpayers. West suburban Lombard this month suffered a credit rating downgrade over a failing hotel and conference center that hasn't met projections since it was built about seven years ago. Topping them all is Bridgeview . Officials in that southwest suburb of about 16,000 told residents a new soccer stadium wouldn't cost them a dime. Now the village is more than $200 million in debt over a stadium that can't make enough to pay the loans back, creating a cycle of rising taxes and more borrowing to make payments. When such publicly funded projects fail to pay for themselves, taxpayers usually must make up the difference. And that was what troubled some in Lemont when they first heard about the sports complex roughly a year ago. 'We are the village' Susan Petrarca , 58, said she learned of the project from a newspaper announcement. Officials said the project wouldn't lead to higher property taxes. But they also planned to take out loans that could increase property taxes if the complex fails to cover debt payments. A year ago, Petrarca and fellow opponents began meeting around kitchen tables after work, determined to stop the village from taking on the debt. In just three weeks, the group collected more petition signatures than the number of votes Mayor Reaves or any village trustee secured in the April election. The measure would have forced a public vote this spring. Instead, the Village Board scrapped the original sports complex ordinance Jan. 6 , avoiding a referendum. But Reaves at the same meeting announced he's still committed to the project and has been in talks with a local corporation to finance the debt, backed by sales tax or other village funds. Reaves said residents can join a citizen advisory committee or contact him with questions, but he won't put the sports complex on the ballot. "We lost our chance to vote," said Janet Hughes , 54. While the maneuver is legal, the petition-gatherers say they're opposed to taking out any debt to build the sports complex, regardless of what kind of taxpayer money is tied to the loan. Hughes and Petrarca question the village's revenue projections and are worried that taxpayers will be on the hook for years to come. "Debt is debt," Petrarca said. "And public debt is public debt. Because we are the village." University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson has studied sports complexes and says opponents are right to be skeptical. The local market is too saturated with such developments, he said. If the project really were so lucrative, he argued, a private developer already would have built it. "If the project doesn't come through, who's financially responsible?" Sanderson said. "In these things, the mayor's personal income and savings should be where the money comes from." Reaves said such concerns are overblown. The sports complex is still a work in progress. No contracts have been signed, and the site will likely need environmental work, he said. The village has overestimated the risk and underestimated the profit, Reaves said. A sports complex would still generate enough revenue to revive downtown and help keep Lemont property taxes low for years to come, he said. "We're doing our due diligence," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com ___ (c)2014 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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