Why consolidation is not the answer

Opinion: Columns

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By Ali ElSaffar

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A series of big tax increases by village government, coupled with a tax referendum for School District 97, are the principal reasons for the significant tax increases Oak Park property owners have experienced over the last five years. In response, village government has put an advisory referendum on the November ballot regarding the consolidation of local governments. Since this ballot measure does not address the spending decisions that drive tax increases, however, I do not believe it will have a meaningful impact on our community's tax problems. 

The referendum, proposed by the village's Efficiency Task Force, appears to be a no-brainer: should Oak Park's village government be merged with the township, the park district and the library if such a merger would result in "a property tax reduction for the residents of Oak Park?" A referendum with no apparent downside would likely win the support of voters who read it for the first time in the ballot booth. But what would a successful referendum actually mean?

The task force claims that the results will provide "insights regarding the perspectives of voters … concerning the method of the delivery of important governmental services." But an extremely general referendum question designed to generate a Yes vote does not provide any insight into the minds of voters. Since the referendum question provides no information on the real-life impact of consolidation, it is impossible to know what voters really think about it.

For example, tax levies from village government have increased by 44 percent over the last five years. This is much higher than the levies from the other local governments that would be merged with the village (Township +11%; Park District 10%; Library -1%). If information about the levy increases of each government were on the ballot, I suspect people would oppose giving more authority to village government, and would instead wonder why village taxes have gone up by so much.

There would also be less support for the referendum if its impact on my office were disclosed. Under state law, merging a township with a municipality means eliminating the elected township assessor (my office). The assessor, however, is the only local official focused on helping residents with tax problems, and demand for the assessor's services is high. 

For example, during the appeal period following last year's reassessment, roughly one out of every five Oak Park homeowners came to the township assessor's office for assistance in filing appeals. It is doubtful that residents would knowingly vote to eliminate an office that they use so frequently. 

Finally, the referendum ballot fails to acknowledge that many elements of the proposed consolidation of local governments are not permitted under state law. Thus if the referendum passes, community leaders will likely spend countless hours arguing over a consolidation plan that the legislature may never approve. Is this what the community wants? I suspect our citizens would prefer that our leaders work together to make local government more efficient. 

Consolidation supporters assume that fewer local governments and fewer elected officials will save money through increased coordination and reduced duplication. Although there is a serious debate about whether this assumption is true, one fact about government consolidation is indisputable: it concentrates power into the hands of a smaller number of people.

When elected officials are eliminated through consolidation, checks and balances in government are also eliminated. This point was made clear by two referendums that took place last year. 

Voters in Oak Park and Evanston both approved school referendums in 2017. When tax bills came out, however, Oak Park's District 97 received $2.6 million more than the referendum ballot indicated, and Evanston's school district got $1.5 million more. I discovered the Oak Park problem while reviewing local tax levies, and notified D97 and the public. To its credit, the district responded by reducing its levy by $3.1 million in 2018.

Evanston, however, does not have a township assessor, having eliminated the position when it merged township and city governments. Without an independent elected official trained in tax matters, there was apparently no one in Evanston with the stature to question the extra money the Evanston schools received. As a result, the school board kept the extra money. One could conclude that Evanston's consolidation plan, often cited as a model of government efficiency, actually cost taxpayers $1.5 million. 

The issue of D97's extra money is the most recent example of a 40-year history of independently elected township assessors providing Oak Park with information and insight into public policy questions regarding taxes. Having such independent voices in government has been very beneficial for our community. 

Because the task force's consolidation plan would eliminate independent voices in tax, social services and other fields, it should not be implemented. We should, however, adopt the recommendations from the task force related to government spending, such as those that call for a 12-year moratorium on referendums and a 3 percent limitation on annual tax increases. These ideas can be implemented in Oak Park immediately, without requiring approval from state lawmakers. By adopting such proposals, we would significantly slow the growth of Oak Park taxes and provide real help to local property owners.

Ali ElSaffar is the Oak Park Township Assessor.

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