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Stearns taxes
Bloomington Alderman Judy Stearns asks a question during a City Council meeting Monday, April 12, 2010. (The Pantagraph, David Proeber)

BLOOMINGTON -- Alderman Judy Stearns has paid $1,456 to the city in back taxes, but questions are being raised about whether it was done in time for her to keep her City Council seat.

City attorney Todd Greenburg said a recent appellate court ruling states a candidate owes a city money if he or she has underpaid property taxes because of multiple homestead exemptions. The ruling further states all money owed to a city must be paid by the time candidates file their petitions to run for office.

"I made the council aware of the ruling as soon as I found it," said Greenburg, who learned of the ruling by the First District Appellate Court in Chicago on April 25. "And now it's up to the council to decide if she is eligible to serve."

As reported by The Pantagraph in a March 25 story, Stearns received four homestead exemptions, including two in Bloomington, for the past six years. Under state law, only one exemption is allowed. The extra exemptions have reduced the McLean County tax bills of Stearns and her husband by more than $5,200 in that time period, according to Pantagraph calculations.

Stearns paid the Bloomington portion of the underpaid taxes on Friday after she was advised by Greenburg to do so. The amount was determined by Greenburg and city of Bloomington Township Assessor Mike Ireland. She also paid $2,387 for the second tax installment on her property at 801 N. McLean St. on March 24.

"By the way election law reads, a person has to be eligible to serve on the day they filed their petition to run," Greenburg said. "If a candidate owes the city money on that date, they are not eligible to serve."

Stearns filed her candidate's petition on Nov. 15, 2010 -- almost six months before she paid the city.

For her part, Stearns said, "I have paid my obligation to the city," adding she welcomed any discussion the City Council wants to have about what she said was a lack of oversight on how homestead exemptions are added to properties. "There are many errors in how homestead exemptions get passed along on properties that are now being corrected," she said.

"Exemptions are not a city matter, it's a state matter and we follow state law," responded McLean County Assessor Bob Kahman, whose office oversees property tax exemptions for the county. "Did my office miss something -- sure, but there is also an expectation that property taxpayers look at their bills for accuracy and they notify us if there is a problem."

The Bloomington City Council is expected to discuss the matter Monday night before Stearns is sworn in for her second term, along with other aldermen elected on April 5.

No one challenged Stearns' nominating petition after it was filed and Stearns went on to defeat her Ward 4 challenger, Carol Koos, by 64 votes.

State board of elections commissioner Jesse Smart, also a former Bloomington mayor, said time has expired to challenge the petition through the election process. But he added that court action is still a possibility.

"Whether anyone could win that challenge depends on how the (new appellate ruling) is applied in this case," Smart said.

Mayor Steve Stockton said because Stearns has paid the amounts she owes to the city before her second term officially begins Monday night, it is likely she will be sworn in.

However, he said the matter should be discussed by the council, which has the authority to decide if a fellow alderman is qualified to be seated.

"This is a new area of the law that has been opened and there is a lot of questions about how it can be applied here, but we should at least have a discussion about this to do this issue some justice," Stockton said.

Several aldermen agreed, including Ward 1 Alderman Bernard Anderson, Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt and Ward 8 Alderman-elect Rob Fazzini, who all said they have concerns about the situation.

Stearns said if aldermen want to have that discussion, "I hope the council has all the facts on election law in front of them."

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