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OTTAWA — La Salle County Board members unanimously agreed to pay back $500,000 in property taxes it levied in 2005 to more than 1,000 county taxpayers. In exchange, the county’s once controversial Risk Management Program is considered valid, as determined by the settlement the board approved. “The county didn’t do anything illegal,” said board chairman Jerry Hicks (D-Marseilles). “We had been levying tort money and using that to pay for health insurance but stopped that as soon as we learned we couldn’t do that.” The tax objection lawsuit, filed in 2006 by attorneys Thomas James and Robert Slattery, centers on the La Salle County Board’s tort levy, a fund filled by property tax dollars that must be used to pay for injury claims or to protect the county board against lawsuits. Both attorneys allege the board illegally used $6.5 million of the $8.6 million it imposed in its tort levy in 2005 to pay for office expenses, claims equipment, personnel, professional services, life insurance and other expenses, based on information received after filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the La Salle County Clerk’s Office. In fiscal year 2005, the county had begun to use tort funds to pay for that purpose but immediately stopped the practice. The board then created a Risk Management Fund – a special fund that uses tort dollars to pay for a percentage of employee wages dependant upon how much of that employee’s regular duties put the county at risk of being sued. For example, employees within the county clerk’s office would not qualify to have their wages covered by the program. However, a sheriff’s deputy would because they are armed peace officers. The 1,245 property taxpayers that filed the objection will be the only people to receive a portion of the cash settlement. The 3rd District Appellate Court ruled in 2009 that state law doesn’t allow people who did not file tax objections to find relief if it is found a taxing body illegally levied funds. The settlement dollars will be paid out according to what the property owners would have paid in property taxes for tort immunity in 2005.
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