An extra tax that Oak Park charges on every gallon of fuel is making it harder for gas stations to survive, especially when neighboring towns have no such fee. That's the message three gas station owners sent to the Oak Park village board during a meeting last week. Margins are razor thin on selling fuel, they said, and the 6-cent-per-gallon tax places an unfair burden on stations.
"It's hard to compete with the competition when you're selling the same product but you're taxed higher than the neighboring suburbs," said Cliff Stevens, who owns the BP station at Austin and Harrison. "Anybody can go across the street at a cheaper price."
Several years ago, Oak Park instituted its own gas tax, which started at 1 cent, and climbed over the years till it was increased to the current 6 cents starting in 2010. That's on top of 19 cents the state charges on each gallon, 18.4 cents from the feds and another 6 cents from the county.
But neighboring Forest Park and River Forest, both non-home rule communities, have no municipal gas tax. Berwyn's is at 1 cent currently, while the City of Chicago matches Oak Park's at 6 cents.
The village estimates it will collect about $980,000 from the tax this year, which it plans to spend on fixing up local roads, according to Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner. He worries that station owners are overstating the tax's impact, but he's willing to explore possible relief.
"People are making this out to be the Pangaea or the focus of all that ails the gas station owners, and I think our opinion is there's probably more to it than just this," Lesner said. "It's a piece of a much larger pie, but we're willing to engage in conversations further, absolutely."
Jim Rentas has been running a gas station at the corner of Ridgeland and Lake Street for the past 42 years. With credit card fees at the pump, on top of all the taxes, gas station owners need to earn a margin of 10 cents on each gallon, just to break even. He admits that he's not making any money on gas. It's just a way to get customers to the station for service.
Rentas thinks Oak Park should roll back the tax and provide some relief. He's confused why a small village has the same tax as the third-largest city in the country, just to the east.
"It's unconscionable what they're doing, and they're chasing retail business away," said Rentas, who did not speak at last week's meeting. "How many gas stations are left in Oak Park? Not many because it's so hard to compete and so hard to make a living."
Village President David Pope did not return calls seeking comment. After last week's meeting, trustees asked village staff to gather more information on the gas tax and its impact on local stations. Trustee Colette Lueck asked staffers to also figure out how many stations have closed in the last few years. (The village clerk's office could not provide that information immediately on Monday, though stations at Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren and at Madison just east of Home have closed in recent years.)
In a follow-up phone interview, Village Manager Tom Barwin said Oak Park isn't completely ruling out a roll back, and will do its due diligence on the matter. He wishes neighboring communities were able to raise their rates to Oak Park's, to help level the playing field and maintain local roads.
"Really the legislation should change to allow non-home rule cities to do it so it's equitable," he said. "I think that would be a smarter solution to put them on equal ground because the costs of roads are very expensive."