Oak Park OKs $135 million budget, triggering tax hike

Trustees to take aim at structural budget deficit in 2017

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Board of Trustees approved a $135 million budget for next year, but members of the board argued that the structural deficit, putting the budget $2 million higher than 2016, needs to be fixed.

The expanding budget, expected to increase the village's portion of Oak Park's property tax bill — about 15 percent of the overall bill — by 8.9 percent, is the result of an increase of $468,510 in the village's contribution to the Police Pension Fund; a $2 million increase to the Firefighters Pension Fund; $400,930 in new debt service and a $2.1 million jump in general operating expenses.

The board voted 6-0 to approve the budget, with Trustee Peter Barber not present. Though Barber did not attend the meeting, he sent a text message to Trustee Glenn Brewer stating that he would have voted against the proposal had he been able to attend.

"He just wanted to express his view that he's not in support of the budget proposal as he wishes we had been able to consider all of the alternatives that would not result in as high an increase as we're ending up with for our tax rate," Brewer told the board.

Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb was critical of the statement.

"Well, he needs to be here to express that opinion or call in," he said after Brewer read the text.

Trustee Colette Lueck said the increased pension contributions are mandated by the state and mainly unavoidable, but the $2.1 million increase to general operating expenses should not be repeated in future budgets.

The "structural deficit" — the village has spent more money than it received in revenue for 12 of the last 15 budget cycles — occurred over a number of years, Lueck explained.

"I don't understand how that could happen but I certainly want to ensure it doesn't happen moving forward," she said. "When I joined the board, it was a policy that every department, if you went over your department budget, you had to come back to the board and get approval.

"That didn't happen," she noted.

Lueck said the village should again require department heads to return to the board on a quarterly basis for such requests as needed. She also argued that the budget document itself does not make it easy for trustees or the public to see where spending has increased. Charts with trend lines going up or down should be included with department budget reports, so the public can see who's spending more or less year over year.

"That way you would have a visual of your budget that would be very easy for the public to understand, as opposed to hundreds of pages which are not easy to understand," Lueck said.

Trustee Adam Salzman said increasing the payments to the police and fire pensions was a "difficult issue" to address but necessary. Those pensions are severely underfunded, meaning the funds only hold a fraction of the money needed to pay out full benefits. The funded status of the firefighters pension is 37 percent, while the police pension is at 51 percent.

"We're not out of the woods in terms of the pressure on our budget and on our property tax levy due to this state situation," he said, referencing changes to accounting practices from the state requiring greater contributions to the funds this year.

He urged the board and other taxing bodies in the village, such as the school districts, library and parks, to better coordinate before taking on major projects that would increase the tax levy moving forward.

Such an intergovernmental agreement could help save taxpayers moving forward. "Because the pressures we face on our budget and our property tax levy are not going away, and we need to start dealing with them cooperatively," he said.

Mayor Abu-Taleb apologized to the public for the tax increase, but said, "There was no other way to do it at this point," due in part to mandated pension expenses, among other things.

"The village cut 20 to 25 percent of the staff about six or seven years ago; right now we are working in a very efficient manner," Abu-Taleb said. "The services we provide are expensive, and the community deserves the best possible services and we're here to do that."

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: December 16th, 2017 12:40 PM

We have added a group on facebook - Oak Park Property Tax Watch. Please join!

Susan Raphael  

Posted: December 13th, 2016 4:37 PM

I could do the math, but does anyone know what the actual impact is per $10,000 tax bill? TIA

Paul Wonney  

Posted: December 13th, 2016 1:56 PM

Jim Coughlin, the Villiage President and his group of trustee's do not care. There is no one who will run for Villiage President so the new form of Oak Park government will be changed so the Villiage Manager can be the Mayor with the over 100 thousand dollar pay check and the Villiage Manager will continue doing what she does. They each know that the people of Oak Park think the land in Oak Park has no value to developers so they give your land away and all of the tax payers that it belongs too. Rex will be Secretary of State because Trump chose him several months ago. Oak Park people can not figure out how things really work. Monica Sheenan to her position and she worked hard to stop a large waste of money. The pool board will get what they want.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: December 12th, 2016 3:21 PM

Paul, credit the Wednesday Journal and this forum for raising questions about the developer's attempt to extort $100K from the tax payers of Oak Park. Dishonest business practices should be enough to ban these con artists but the decision makers apparently bought the excuse the incident was simply a misunderstanding. It does appear the no one at Village Hall or any members of the Village Board thought it fishy Coopers Hawk needed financial aid in order to open. Have other schemes and scams been played in Oak Park involving TIF funds? No way to know as long our Village President and trustees refuse to allow a forensic accountant and the taxpayers to examine the books.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 11th, 2016 4:06 PM

To Barbara and Jason: Why should YOU move? Let's get the a holes who created and continue to create these disasters to move. Why should we give in to these jerks? That's what they are hoping that people like you (and I) will leave. Why should we leave? We have every right to live here. Vote these a holes out. Fight them tooth and nail - as we have been doing. Please stay.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 9:00 PM

The tip of the iceberg, Bridget. But , at least there are ways to track exactly how monies drawn from the Village's general fund are being spent. It certainly does seem that the Village Board too often has community priorities out of whack. Unfortunately, there no way to get a handle on the collection and spending practices of the numerous TIF districts scattered across our community. Each has it own set of books and no way for an interested party to determine if hundreds of millions of public dollars are being properly spent. Oak Park could and should provide an example for other communities in Illinois and nationwide by establishing a policy that requires TIF books are always open for inspection by partner agencies and taxpayers. Leading the way is a tradition always championed by Village leaders. Embracing policies that do not promote full transparency is contrary to our rich heritage

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 5:46 PM

Does this Village budget include $271,000 that is needed to get the high school parking garage in the shape it should already be in, but isn't, because the Village has been neglecting to maintain it for the last decade, even though that's its job, and would rather spend our money on things like $135,500 to an out-of-state company to study the Village's signs ("wayfinding system")? Or on a valet parking company, or Divvy bikes, or giving themselves a raise, or, or, or, or...

Paul Wonney  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 5:18 PM

Jim Coughlin, here are 2 claims made by TIF opponents. As investment in an area increases, it is not uncommon for real estate values to rise and for gentrification to occur. That would not be very good for Oak Park's efforts to make Oak Park affordable for everyone. The TIF process arguably leads to favoritism for politically connected developers, implementing attorneys, economic development officials, and others involved in the processes. The Wednesday Journal reported that the developer for Vantage needed 100 thousand dollars to build an area for Cooper's Hawk, until a spokesman for Cooper's Hawk found out and wanted to make sure Oak Park residents knew Cooper's Hawk was not asking for any money. The Wednesday Journal, then reported the corrected information. Jim Coughlin, you can run for trustee and explain how the TIF works.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 2:00 PM

Mr Mayor - you have my permission to provide less services. They seem to be too expensive so lets have a bit less of that. Figure that out please, that would be leadership.

Byron Lanning  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 10:55 AM

Latest update on the upcoming D97 referendum pages 16-31 http://www.op97.org/communications/documents/D97ReferendumPresentation-12-6-16.pdf Three scenarios on hypothetical referendum with increase per $10,000 current annual tax bill of A. $562, B. $770, C $895

Barbara Joan  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 10:14 AM

The taxing bodies are totally out of control in this Village. It is time to just say NO....If local governments and school districts had paid in more all along the state wouldn't be in such dire straits now. And maybe local governments would think twice before giving soon to be retirees the bonuses that increase their pensions and increase the burden on pension funds....TIF books are not open for public inspection or submitted to a forensic accountant. Village board members and upper management contend TIF data is available but specific expenditures have never been revealed nor have complete details of the contracts awarded for goods and services. It's all very hush hush. Only a very select few have ever had access to such information and they all seem to have been sworn to secrecy...The tax burden in the town is unsustainable and I and my family are tired of fighting down out tax assessment. We have decided to move this spring.....Diversity? Progressive? As always, follow the money $$$

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 9:02 AM

Oak Park village leadership: "Wow, we spent $2.1 MM more money than we planned, and have no idea where it went. We could really use some pictures to help us run this place." I'm glad some are not returning to the Board, and I'm not convinced any deserve to.

Jason Wightman  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 7:10 AM

A tax hike will be coming. This town goes one thing well and that's bend over. The pool project vote was surprise but they will get their money else where or try again next time with a more coordinated "save the children" guilt trip. The tax burden in the town is unsustainable and I and my family are tired of fighting down out tax assessment. We have decided to move this spring. I feel sorry for the poor sucker who buys our house and soon finds his assessment doubled as years of my continued work to beat that number down.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: December 10th, 2016 1:22 AM

I did get an answer to that question, Bruce. TIFs have been the subject of numerous reports by Ben Javorsky in the The Reader. Regarding any restrictions on disclosure or allowing a public examination of Oak Park's TIF books; there's nothing preventing the Village Board from taking any action. The catch is that the rules governing the creation of TIF districts do not require full disclosure. There's no legal obligation. Public officials are actually allowed to collect and spend a huge amount of tax dollars with minimal oversight, transparency and accountability. The Village President and sitting trustees have never publicly refused to open the books as a previous board tried to do when District 200 made a request. Still, no one is currently taking a position on the right of the taxpayers to see the complete picture. TIFs have been part of local financing plans for many years. A forensic accountant could examine years of records and let's us know if the TIF districts in Oak Park have been a boom or bust for the partner agencies and taxpayers. Have developers and goods and contracted services providers received fair compensation? There's never been an independent study of the impact, value and benefit relating to the Oak Park TIF districts.That can only happen when the Village board decides it's time to open the books.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 11:40 PM

Natalie Stein's post is on the mark. The village and board have had a budget deficit in 12 of the last 15 years. The " structural deficits" were not the result of poor fiscal management only. The suspension of $100,000 bank debts payments, limited payments of pension in hope that the state would pay it all, and borrowing from TIF funds to shortfall. The press, banks, businesses, knowledgeable residents, and the Oak Park Taxing Bodies were all aware of the villages financial problems and its manpower burden. In 2013 John Hodges and Anan Abu Taleb ran for village president. During debates both candidates acknowledge the village's unstable economic condition. Both saw the economic situation as a major challenge for their elections. During the race, I helped Anan prepare an economic strategy. I suggested three - A) a significant cut in spending including headcount, B) an urgent upgrade in operational technology and business practices, and C) a pay down of debt and restoration of pension payments to state. Anan did not agree and preferred a growth strategy. He adopted a development (Hi Rise) approach. He said that he would be able in three years to eliminate debt, reduce the structual deficit burden, and address the villages infrastructure issues. Anan's strategy has brought a lot of attention to the village, has built several hi-rises, and has taken a major risk for the village. The next post gives insight into how development does not always result in a windfall for small municipalities.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 10:53 PM

Jim: What are the legal obligations on disclosure of TIF book keeping? Could a group of citizens obtain a court order (or attempt same) to "open the books" for public inspection?

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 10:31 PM

Don't be fooled! TIF books are not open for public inspection or submitted to a forensic accountant. Village board members and upper management contend TIF data is available but specific expenditures have never been revealed nor have complete details of the contracts awarded for goods and services. It's all very hush hush. Only a very select few have ever had access to such information and they all seem to have been sworn to secrecy. Exactly how many millions of tax dollars have been collected and spent is unknown but experts who have knowledge of TIF financing have estimated Oak Park's take to be well in excess of $100,000,000.00! And that's a conservative number. If Anan and current board members were truly committed to transparency; all of the secrets of the TIFs would be revealed.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 10:03 PM

It seems to me that anyone who attends Mayor Anan's Town Hall on Tuesday should make the TIF transparency - or lack thereof - an issue. Unfortunately for me, Hizzonor scheduled his little get together on the same night the D200 School Board is having their little soiree. And given the enormous effort expended on the Vote NO initiative I think I gotta be at the high school and listen to all the sob stories from the pool lobby on how they did so great- "yeah, they lost but only by a little bit, and therefore they really won" - and therefore how you just "gotta build the ginormous swimming pool" anyway - yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah. Right.

Jack Davidson  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 9:26 PM

Right, the TIF books. What was that Anan said at the beginning of the meeting, that there was some handout in the back with the TIF fund disclosures, and mumbling something about how this information should always be available to the public? There was nothing in the back of the room other than the agenda for the night. Maybe there was a link printed in the agenda, but I threw it away.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 6:25 PM

Fees and fines are skyrocketing and now a big increase in property taxes. Makes you wonder how much of the deficit could be offset if Oak Park ended the TIF districts. Hundreds of millions of our tax dollars have been diverted to fund boondoggle projects, no-bid contracts, handouts to rich developers and sweetheart deals for insiders. There's no accounting for how much these schemes and scams have impacted Village finances and we''ll never know as long as this board continues to hide the TIF books from taxpayers.

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 4:31 PM

VOP is blaming the State for the expectation that they share a greater burden for funding pensions for Oak Park Village retirees! If local governments and school districts had paid in more all along the state wouldn't be in such dire straits now. And maybe local governments would think twice before giving soon to be retirees the bonuses that increase their pensions and increase the burden on pension funds.

Al Rossell  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 4:18 PM

I wonder how much they would have needed to raise if they did not let loose with all those giveaways these past few years. Also did we really need a sign consultant? How much was that? How much are the new signs going to cost. Taxes in this town are getting out of hand.Its amazing how much wisdom someone obtains when they get in office. Did no one ever question these budget shortfalls all these years? What is the point of making a budget if you never look at it.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 4:13 PM

Well add to this the next attempt by D200 for another shot at the ginormous swimming pool; D97 enormous tax grab in April and D200 coming back in 2018/19 or so for some operating fund bonds. And then there is the Park District with their pie- in- the -sky multimillion dollar rec center. The taxing bodies are totally out of control in this Village. It is time to just say NO.

Natalie Stein  

Posted: December 9th, 2016 3:51 PM

"The "structural deficit" ?" the village has spent more money than it received in revenue for 12 of the last 15 budget cycles ?" occurred over a number of years, Lueck explained. "I don't understand how that could happen but I certainly want to ensure it doesn't happen moving forward," she said. " The Mayor apologized for the tax increase. What efficient village management we have and I suppose this should make it all better. This village gets worse and worse.

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