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."
Answer Book 2017
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