Two years ago my wife, Beth, was approached and asked to become the global marketing director for a leading international microfinance organization, based in Nairobi, Kenya, and it would have entailed the eventual relocation of our family.
Had she accepted the position, and had I remained as village president, we would have lived apart for 18-24 months. As we began to look at alternatives, Beth asked whether I might consider stepping down and, if so, who the best person would be to become president. I gave her a two word answer: John Hedges.
As the current campaign got underway, I didn't expect to be offering a public endorsement. But recent ill-informed statements have led me to conclude that an endorsement is important for our community.
I place a lot of emphasis on fact-based decision-making. Too often the facts are orphans in the political rough-and-tumble of election campaigns. Unfortunately, public policy is sometimes driven by statements, made in the heat of political campaigns that, while popular, have no basis in reality. This can lead to horrible subsequent policy-making (please see Washington D.C. and Springfield for examples).
The current race has rightly highlighted increasing property taxes as one of the key issues facing our community. Our stature as the most successfully diverse city in the country is fundamentally jeopardized by the dramatic increase in our property tax burden, which is driving out low- and moderate-income residents, fixed-income seniors and persons with disabilities, and increasingly middle and upper-middle income families, singles, and empty-nesters.
To meaningfully confront this issue, however, you've got to be willing to start with the facts. Since 1990, the tax burden imposed by our six local jurisdictions has grown at nearly twice the rate of inflation (5.41% vs. 2.75%). That's entirely unsustainable. But it is also largely unrelated to the municipal government of the village of Oak Park.
The village's levy has increased over time. However, if you look at the portion of village spending that is locally controlled (removing pension contributions, as these are entirely controlled by the state government), you get a very different picture.
Up-to-date audited figures show that the locally controlled portion of village government's general-fund spending has actually gone down over the past eight years from $42.1 million to $41.1 million (2004 to 2011). Village staffing levels have decreased by 21% (from 481 to 380 employees). Even more impressive in this time of fiscal austerity, the percentage of residents rating the village's overall quality of life as good or excellent has increased by statistically significant amounts from 81% in 2004 to 90% today.
We're doing better because we've made good policy decisions, executed them well, and have kept the political silliness to a minimum. Further, we've set the stage for continuous improvement with the adoption of a comprehensive performance management system that will provide transparent and objective evaluation of our progress, helping us identify when and where we need to make adjustments.
In a March 20 article, the Journal quoted Anan Abu-Taleb as saying that he's running for president "because our government needs some financial discipline." Anan also said he wants to "cut back spending levels and increase efficiency, but didn't name specific departments or services he'd change." These comments indicate that Anan doesn't genuinely understand the current financial circumstances of the village, what has been achieved over these past eight years, and how our municipal government is poised to move forward.
Stock political truisms and bumper-sticker leadership, while provocative and at times politically effective, are of absolutely no value in establishing a thoughtful course forward for our community. Statements suggesting that our property tax challenges can be singularly addressed by a president willing to make "hard decisions" reflect real naivety and a fundamental lack of understanding that the village only controls 10 cents of every property tax dollar.
There is a place here for continuing leadership, specifically from the president. It is in furthering the ongoing work with our fellow Oak Park taxing bodies to create integrated, five-year financial projections, to implement structures that improve accountability and transparency, and to plan for responsible expenditures and investment, with an eye toward each taxing body's impact on the cumulative tax effect on all of our residents. John Hedges gets this. It's become clear that Anan does not.
We can complain all we want about the local property tax burden, but until we all take the time to understand and correct the real drivers behind recent property tax increases, they won't change. Having worked alongside my board colleagues for the past eight years to rein in village spending and implement improved performance management, I know that John Hedges understands this. He has helped our community to achieve unprecedented results.
On April 9, he'll have my support, and I hope he'll have yours too.