OP real estate taxes rise seven percent

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By DREW CARTER

Q: Determine the next logical number in the following sequence: 10, 15, 4, 7, ???.

A: Trick question ?#34; it's anyone's guess what next year's property tax hike will be, although Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar sees no tax relief in sight.

There was little reason to expect residential property taxes would rise as much as they did this year, 7 percent, ElSaffar said.

"This came as a surprise to me because it's not a reassessment year and there was no referendum on the ballot," he said.

Two major factors contributed to the 7-percent hike over 2003 property taxes ('04 taxes are paid this year). First, spending. Government bodies in Oak Park collectively raised their levies?#34;the money used as the majority of revenue for most taxing bodies?#34;5.5 percent.

Tax caps supposedly limit the raise most governments give themselves to the rate of inflation. To get a raise higher than inflation, a referendum needs to be passed.

But taxing districts' levies rose as much as 9 percent, as was the case with Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200.

Cheryl Witham, OPRF chief financial officer, broke down the 9-percent hike thus: 1.9 percent was due to inflation, 3 percent is allowed for "loss/cost" (money not collected from taxpayers), 1.4 percent to repay bonds issued for a new roof and pool repairs, and 0.6 percent because of new construction in the village. Newly-built properties are taxed in addition to the previous total tax base.

The remaining bump represents a phase-in of the tax hike approved by voters in a 2002 referendum.

The village of Oak Park's levy also increased 8.1 percent, despite the fact that officials there did not raise property tax rates. Hikes there were also in part attributable to bond issuances, including one to make $1.3 million payouts to Elementary School District 97 for three years.

But spending accounts for 5.5 points of the average 7-percent climb. The remainder is caused by a shift in the property tax burden from rental apartment buildings. Those buildings were reassessed at a lower rate in 2004, causing other taxpayers to shoulder the burden (see sidebar).

ElSaffar warned that next year may not be much better.

Next year, residential properties will be reassessed and a new law will limit annual assessment increases to 7 percent, or a cumulative 21 percent over the triennial cycle. That might help some homeowners, but what won't is the referendum voters approved in April to fund the park district.

District 97 officials have said for years that a referendum there is looming.

ElSaffar said that this year's hike should alert residents to government spending practices. He said that spending increases and bond sales, looked at in isolation, surely make sense. But collectively they might affect economic diversity in the village, he said.

While Oak Park's tax rate climbed this year nearly 3 percent, River Forest's remained unchanged, and those in surrounding communities dropped.

"The good thing about Oak Park is that we really believe in great service to the community. The bad thing is that it's expensive," he said.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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