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On the campaign trail in recent months, one image surfaced for Ray Johnson, who was elected to a third term on the Oak Park village board last week. An elderly man answered his door, who was quivering and nearly cried in front of a couple of strangers.
The older gentleman had hoped to retire here, Johnson recalled, but said rising property taxes are forcing him out. With that image in mind, Johnson and his running mates held a summit on Saturday morning at Eastgate Café, hoping to spark intergovernmental cooperation to save taxpayer dollars.
"That's a tough encounter," Johnson said. "And I will remember him for a very long time. A 30-year resident and he's leaving. I think it's incumbent on us to think as creatively as possible about ways we can work together and think about the impact of the taxes on so many people who are struggling."
Intergovernmental cooperation has been a catch phrase in local campaigns for years, but without many tangible results. Johnson — along with fellow Village Manager Association-endorsed candidates Robert Tucker and Adam Salzman — want to make good on one of their campaign promises, starting this past weekend.
Newly elected members from every local governing body attended on Saturday (village board, park district, library, elementary schools and high school). Also in attendance were Village President David Pope, along with Township Supervisor David Boulanger.
Suggested ideas included pooling purchases to save money, or bunching employees together in the same health care pool.
David Sokol, who was recently elected to a spot on the library board and has been involved in local politics for decades, said he's been hearing local politicians talk about intergovernmental cooperation for 30 years. He thinks mass purchasing and sharing technology make sense, but saving real money means sharing positions among taxing bodies.
"That's where the executive director or leader of every taxing body is going to scream bloody murder and not want to give up any control and say everyone is working as hard as they can already," Sokol said.
But Salzman said it's probably not worth discussing layoffs at this point, and it might be more productive to start small and build incrementally.
"I think it's important to start from a constructive place, rather than to talk about eliminating positions and things like that, which are obviously very unpleasant topics of discussion and probably don't have a high chance of success right out of the gate," he said.
Paul Aeschleman, elected to the park board, said all entities should work together when placing signs around Oak Park, and maintaining facilities.
"We could talk all we want, but the public wants to see things get done," he said. "And the best way to get things done is to pick things that you can actually get done."
Peter Traczyk, just elected to his second term on the District 97 school board, agreed that Oak Park government needs to find bigger-ticket items to address if it really wants to reduce the tax burden. He believes there's value in just starting the conversation and meeting with each other, and he said a lot of intergovernmental cooperation already goes on. He said, ultimately, it's the top administrators who would make that collaboration happen.
"That's how stuff at the practical level really gets done," he said. "We just need to point them in the right direction."
The two re-elected incumbents on the District 200 high school board — Ralph Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman — cautioned that intergovernmental cooperation isn't as easy as it sounds. Lee said it's unrealistic to expect the high school to just jump into the effort.
Patchak-Layman characterized the discussion as informal and was loathe to attach any requirements to it. The rest of the District 200 board wasn't even briefed on the idea, she said.
President Pope said he believes Oak Park's elected officials needed to start thinking more like taxpayers and less like politicians. He also questioned, with so many people are showing up to apply for jobs, if it is necessary to give such generous raises and benefit packages to public employees.
Johnson asked members of each elected body to seek out two members to participate in the process. He hopes to find out by May who is on board with the effort, and to meet again in the next two months.