Before voting for park referendum, consider how OP could think outside the box

Opinion

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MARY SHIFFER

My family uses and enjoys many classes and programs at park district facilities during the year. However, before we go to the polls in April, there are a few important points every taxpayer should know before casting a vote.

Property tax reassessment year

All Oak Park property taxpayers will receive their reassessment letters in June, two months after we're asked to vote on the referendum. This letter will outline the increase to our Equalized Assessed Values (EAV) due to rising property values over the last 3 years. Therefore, when we go to the polls, we are essentially voting blind. Looking at your tax bill today does not tell you what the park district tax increase will really cost you when it goes into effect.

According to a recent Tribune article, the 60302 zip code experienced an 88 percent increase in the last 5 years. While a portion of that appreciation was converted into an increase to the EAV 3 years ago, the remaining spike will come in June. Oak Park's 60301 zip code had a 59 percent year over year price increase. For an average $400,000 property, a 40 percent increase in value over the last 3 years has the potential to increase the tax bill to over $10,000 per year.

Recent home purchasers especially vulnerable

If you purchased a home in the last year, your purchase price may be directly converted into your new tax bill EAV. The tax payment amount you were quoted when house hunting will not stick with you now that the property has changed hands, and may have been based on a price from 15 years ago.

Seniors pay more

According to the mechanics of the senior tax freeze, they won't see the spike like the rest of us, but since the district is proposing to change its tax rate, seniors will have to pay this rate increase.

Incomes less than $100,000 need not apply

Repeated property tax increases erodes the ability of families earning under $100,000 to now live in a home in Oak Park. For a family living in the average $400,000 property, just the mortgage and 2006 estimated property taxes would consume 42 percent of the family budget.

Oak Parkers give lip service to the importance of diversity, while repeatedly voting for tax increases that chip away at our economic diversity. In the past, residents were able to work as college professors, shop owners, nurses and school teachers and still afford to live and raise a family here. Today, if your income doesn't have 6 digits, good luck trying to make ends meet. This is a point many long time residents fail to grasp especially if they purchased homes 10-20 years ago, and their mortgage payments are a mere ghost of what our "average" Oak Park family must now pay.

Families already pay extra share to the park district

If you are single or an empty nester, you may never step foot in a park district facility. Perhaps you take a fitness class or walk your dog through the park. In this case your annual fees for district programs is probably less than $100 per year. Having a few hundred dollars added to your taxes may not seem too bad, since it's unlikely the district will lure you into becoming a fee paying supporter.

However, if you have a couple of kids you may be paying $1,000 or more in fees for summer camp, classes and swim passes. You already make a substantial contribution toward the district's budget through fees.

Higher property taxes bleed local businesses

Supporters of the tax increase tell us, "it's only the cost of a digital camera"?#34;to be paid every year for as long as you can afford to live here. This ignores the fact that our 2006 tax reassessments may also impose the equivalent cost of a new high definition TV on our budgets each year. Making these imaginary "purchases" to support higher taxes, means one less real digital camera is purchased at a local shop.

Finding alternative solutions

We need to come together to think "outside the box" and look at progressive alternative funding solutions instead of a regressive property tax that leaves no recourse for overburdened citizens.

To implement some of these alteratives, the district would benefit more from continuing its relationship with the village. I realize the district has hired consultants who report that these two bodies should separate. This break from the village, while philosophically attractive to the park district's sense of autonomy, will cost us all more. The revenue generating alternatives that I suggest are:

A development density tax

As development density increases, the limited amount of available park space increases in value. Therefore, it's fair to require that developers to pay a tax to support parks.

A property improvement fee

According to a village publication, $98 million was spent last year on property improvements in Oak Park. If you can pay to build a two story addition, then perhaps at a rate of $10 per $1,000, you can share a small portion of your good fortune to fund park district capital improvements. This creates a greater sense of parity among private and district properties. This project-by-project tax would be less in many households over the long term than a property tax rate increase that is paid year after year after year.

A conservatory entry fee/membership

The Oak Park Conservatory is open to the public free of charge. A small entry fee, $2-4, could collect revenue not only from Oak Parkers, but also from thousands of tourists. In this way everyone who visits the Conservatory could help support its operation?#34;not just taxpayers. Oak Park residents and families could purchase an annual membership that would give them unlimited visits for a fixed price.

A fundraising not for profit "Friends of the Parks"

If every ardent supporter of the park tax increase were to instead look at what it would cost them and write a check each year, to the proposed not-for-profit "Friends of the Parks Capital Improvements Campaign," a portion of the required funds can be raised. This way, supporters can still make the same contribution that a tax increase would mandate, deduct it from their taxes as a charitable contribution, and yet families that would be hurt most by a blanket tax increase could retain a choice on how to spend their limited dollars. This grass roots effort at fundraising has historical precedence here in Oak Park. I believe in the generosity of Oak Parkers. I believe that a large portion of funds can be raised without a tax increase.

So as we make up our minds on how we will vote on the referendum we need to ask ourselves an important question?#34;is a property tax increase the only way to aid our parks?#34;or just the easy way?

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