Vote out Oak Park's 'tax and spend' village board

Opinion

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Everyone who lives in Oak Park is threatened by the escalating yearly burden of our property taxes, which is making it increasingly difficult for many of us to sustain our lives here. One political party has been in control of the village for 50 years. A lack of challenge to the status quo has resulted in our present "tax and spend" government that is using our money irresponsibly, without due diligence and accountability. While our schools and parks are suffering financially and need relief, there's a rush to make commitments that will not only indebt us far into the future, but will seriously compromise the quality of life that brought us to Oak Park.

There is a failure to manage this village for the benefit of all the people as our government has become increasingly responsive to special interests. A courtship has evolved between the majority of trustees and a handful of big money investors who, if left unchallenged, will compromise the essence of what this village is all about. There seems no way to penetrate the back room deals and personal alliances that have resulted in the aggressive acquisition of property at excessive cost and without the benefit of a developmental plan.

We are in crisis and there is a danger that we will not be able to come to grips with the meaning of the developmental explosion until it's too late. At issue now is the very identity of our village. Decisions are being made that cannot be undone. The next election may be the most important in the history of this town.

Among the primary issues, the majority on the board of trustees are pressing for approval of an extension to the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for downtown before the Crandall-Arambula master plan has even been completed, much less reviewed and debated by the board and public. In 21 years, we've spent more than $80 million in taxpayer dollars for development downtown without a systematic analysis of the benefits. In fact, the use of TIF funds has been so selective and arbitrary that much of the money has not been spent on our behalf, but in large part to support private developers and to quietly purchase properties.

There's a supposition that without public subsidy, there will be no private investment. While this may once have been true, it is no longer the case. Property values have soared 88.2 percent in the last five years and Oak Park has become an attractive place for investment. The idea that we have to underwrite the development of downtown with tax dollars out of our pocketbooks in a time of exploding property values and increasing commercial attractiveness is absurd. And we are underwriting downtown's development at the expense of the rest of Oak Park. Money that would flow to other sectors of the village will be siphoned off to pay for extravagant developments like Whiteco.

Whiteco is the largest giveaway of our tax dollars to a private developer in the history of this village. The village government's claims about every aspect of this deal from the land assessment to the return on investment are highly questionable. Had a fair and open Request for Proposals been issued four years ago, the cost involved in staff time and salaries, legal expenses and public opposition could have been avoided. The entire project is a flagrant waste of public resources and energy.

In addition to Whiteco, massive new development is being proposed for downtown that will decimate the availability of parking and destroy numerous historic structures. Failure to recognize the implications of density and access as well as our architectural heritage will have catastrophic results. Congestion is already suffocating the downtown corridor and there is no plan in place for relief.

There are other sweet deals that the public will only hear about by filing a Freedom of Information Application. In 2001, the Taxman Corporation bought 1125-33 Lake Street for $4.9 million. On the day of purchase, the village agreed to reimburse Taxman for the full $4.9 million if it did not approve their development plan. Taxman will also be reimbursed for any attorney fees, the appraisal, title and survey. In a competitive capital market, the village is assuming the risk, while developers such as Taxman and Whiteco proceed with guarantees underwritten by our tax dollars. They are playing with our money.

The village is also artificially driving up real estate prices downtown by buying properties at inflated rates. In 1998, 1121-23 Lake Street sold for $250,000. Two years later without any capital improvements to the property, the village bought the building for $582,750. Our home did not double in value over these two years.

The election offers an opportunity to challenge a system that is inbred. For the first time in the recent history of this village, there is the possibility that the public will be truly invited to participate in developmental decisions. It means that lip service may give way to renaissance. But each resident must stand against the current government and the special interests they serve.

Please join us in voting for Robert Milstein as President, Geoff Baker, Martha Brock and Greg Marsey for Trustee, and Sharon Patchak-Layman for Village Clerk.

Bernell and Tony Loeb
Oak Park

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