Park progress a priority as new village board eyes rebate

? With the park district passing a tax hike referendum handily, new village board looks at rebating or redeploying $1.6 million.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

On the heels of a successful tax referendum, it's clear that the long cash-strapped Park District of Oak Park will have additional funding in the coming years.

What has been uncertain, at least in the months leading up to last week's election, is the future relationship between the district and village government.

The district has historically received roughly $1.6 million in annual funding from the village, and is looking to get continued financial support in the next few years to help fund capital improvements. The district, based on a consultant and citizen committee recommendation, is also seeking ultimate financial independence from the village, and to gain ownership of the seven recreation centers.

The former village board was reluctant to make any promises before the referendum vote was over. But, just days after the election results were in, it appears the district is going to get what it's been asking for.

"This is a priority issue and I see us moving forward very quickly," Village President-elect David Pope said Friday. "A number of us support the consultant's recommendation to shift assets over to the park district and continue funding for the next three years."

The New Leadership Party (NLP) candidates, who now make up the majority of the board, have strongly supported park district independence and transferring ownership of the rec centers to the parks. Trustee Robert Milstein said last week he expects the outstanding issues between the bodies to be resolved quickly.

The only issue that remains somewhat vague, however, is to what degree the village intends to rebate to taxpayers some of the property tax dollars it levies to fund the park district.

If the village were to rebate $1.6 million of its property tax levy, the effect could be relatively significant, Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar said. Currently, ElSaffar has projected that the total levy of local governments will increase by 2.8 percent, a figure that reflects the park referendum tax hike. If the village rebates the money, ElSaffar said the increase would only be about half, or 1.4 percent.

The exact impact on individual tax bills is still unclear due to a pending county reassessment and new legislation that limits Equalized Assessed Value increases for most homeowners to 7 percent.

But, the rebate would mean, that taxpayers would?#34;in some fashion?#34;only have to shoulder an increase of 1.4, rather than 2.8 percent. 

During the campaign, the NLP had pledged to cut its levy by $1.6 million, an amount equal to what the village currently gives the district.

Milstein said "as of now," he would choose to abate it as promised. However, he acknowledged that it may be challenging if federal funding to the village government is significantly cut.

"No one knows what's going to happen if the [U.S.] President cuts Community Development Block Grants. If that gets through congress, we may need those funds to help Hepzibah, infrastructure and so on," he said.

Pope said he's "clearly in favor of rebating some of those funds," and said during his campaign that he'd like to use half of the $1.6 million to work with the parks on an initiative to support early childhood care (see side bar on previous page).

Trustee Ray Johnson said he's "thrilled" that the referendum passed, but acknowledged that he has not been a "proponent" of rebating the $1.6 million.

"I know first hand that we're facing our own tight budget. I'd rather look at ways to target those dollars in a way that really enhances what [the park district] is doing, rather than just rebate it," he said. "People love to hear that taxes are going down. But we do have to be careful making about over committing ourselves."

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