By Dan Haley
I was reading through a batch of my past columns last week. Doesn't that sound pathetically vain? And, yes, it's true, I was hanging on every word.
Actually, I was looking for three columns out of the 45 or so I wrote last year that I might send along to the Illinois Press Association's annual contest.
After doing this for decades, I've concluded that even though this is a community newspaper-focused contest, the judges — journalists from other states who volunteer to read the collective wisdom of Illinois newspapers — don't really want to read our takes on the local school board approving an educational software package or whether a proposed building is just the right height for a particular corner.
They want to read the universal stuff. That's why every year I change the date and send in the column from when my dad died. And, one of these years, Pop, we're going to win and you're going to be so proud of me!
I've said too much.
So there was a column from last spring, just after Oak Park voters approved a hefty tax hike for the District 97 schools. Some portion of the public, including me, worried that the schools might go on a spending spree (hmmmm).
I asked Peter Traczyk, then the school board president, what we ought to watch for to make sure District 97 was being fiscally responsible.
"Watch the levy we pass in December," he said.
The property tax levy is the number of overall dollars a taxing body is shooting to collect from local taxpayers. You can talk about tax rates and equalized assessed valuation, but the number to look at is the levy.
And that put me in mind of the District 200 school board over at OPRF. Continued kudos to them for the tight-fisted, two-year contract they inked with the faculty last week. Total pay freeze for next school year. Partial pay freeze (what, exactly is a partial pay freeze?), OK a pretty small pay increase, in the second year.
This is the sort of pact that makes a taxpayer, and we all got our tax bills in the mail this week, breathe easier.
"It won't be the high school clobbering me next year. Might be the mosquito abatement district that gets me, but it won't be OPRF."
That is if the high school board approves a levy next December that reflects its salary costs being static for two years. In its press release last week, the school says that over two years this deal will save it $2.7 million compared to previous projections.
But it will only save taxpayers if the district freezes, or actually reduces, its levy to reflect those savings. Otherwise, the school district can legally hike the levy by the level of the Consumer Price Index, which ought to amount to a couple of points this year. And remember that estimates of the amount of our tax money now sitting in the vault over on Scoville have just leapt past the $100 million mark. Simply preposterous.
Yesterday, way too late I know, I emailed several OPRF board members and asked them their plans for the levy. Heard back from just one of them by Tuesday morning. But I did hear back from Dee Millard, the board president, who I had not inquired of.
She gave me the response I expected. No, the board has not yet discussed this, she said. But the goal of all involved at OPRF is to "be fiscally efficient and prudent to stretch our dollars as far as we can ... to push the need for a referendum further out into the future."
In other words, no tax relief for you, buster. OPRF is currently prognosticating that because it has our $100 million, it will not need a referendum for at least 11 years. This is not how the tax laws were intended to work and it sounds to me like the levy is going up.