Consolidation referendum: A wolf in sheep's clothing?

Opinion: Columns

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By Dick McKinlay

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The Oak Park Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force, chaired by former Village President David Pope demonstrated the threat posed by increased property taxes. It also identified several major proposals to constrain the key drivers of this escalation, which were included in the Task Force's final report to the village board on Oct. 1. 

One of the more questionable recommendations already has been introduced. This is the referendum that asked whether the village should consider the merger and consolidation of one or more of the library, park district or township, to determine if property taxes might be reduced. It was introduced with little evidence to suggest that consolidation might actually yield substantial savings. In fact, when first presented to the task force, Chairman Pope said it was intended to see whether the community has an appetite for consolidating taxing bodies. 

Actually, the idea had been considered months earlier. As discovered by a concerned citizen's Freedom of Information Act request, by Nov. 2, 2017, the village president had already drafted "A Resolution to Establish a Consolidation Committee" to examine "the dissolution of coterminous taxing bodies and options for the continued delivery of services of the dissolved taxing body." This was never publicly presented to the board, presumably because it might have been viewed as a power grab. But what if it were to be recommended by an impartial task force seeking only to study the issue? 

Nearly four months later the President presented a resolution calling for the creation of "A Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force," and a few months after its creation, and prior to the completion of its findings, Chairman Pope presented the consolidation referendum to the village board.

It seems very unlikely that a study would identify substantial tax savings. The village already controls the library's levy, so a merger would be meaningless. Consolidation of the park district, without the cooperation of the park board, would generate an expensive legal battle and ultimately require an act of the state legislature. But merging the township into the village would be easier, since state legislation facilitates this type of consolidation. Furthermore, apart from seniors, there appears to be little public sentiment against such a merger, and, apart from losing the Assessor's Office, the township services could arguably be run as well by the village. But why would the village want these responsibilities, especially since the dissolution of the township would likely have little impact on property taxes? 

The answer appears to lie not in the township's levy, but in its assets: It owns and occupies two valuable pieces of real estate at 105 and 130 S. Oak Park Ave., which house its administrative offices, host its senior services, and serve a number of other public functions. Following a merger, title to these properties would immediately transfer to the village. The President could point out that that keeping these properties off the tax rolls is not their highest and best use since developers would pay dearly to add more of the high-end structures that are transforming central Oak Park. Then the southern portion of the Hemingway District could become an attractive and vibrant area similar to Marion Street, and Oak Park would benefit from the increased tax base. The fact that such a redevelopment area would also be home to Maya del Sol is, at best, a happy coincidence.

I can't tell whether David Pope feels sheepish for advancing the Mayor's agenda, but I can sense a wolfish a strategy to create a new development opportunity when it arises.

Dick McKinlay is an Oak Park resident.

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