Longtime homeowners packed village hall last week to share property tax horror stories and urge government leaders to curb future spending.

“I grew up in Oak Park. I have been a homeowner for 21 years. My parents lived here forever, and my baby just started at OPRF,” said Cate Jacobs at the community meeting last Thursday night. But after getting her most recent property tax bill, “I don’t see any way I can possibly stay here,” she said.

“I love Oak Park. I thought I’d be here forever.”

Jacobs’ rising tax pinch comes because of a combination of factors: she lost her long-term homeowner’s exemption, her house is appreciating in value, and her husband died and she is now going on a single income.

Recent tax shifts mean that she and longtime homeowners like her are bearing a larger portion of the tax burden created by voter-approved referenda from several local institutions, including the school districts, the library and the park district.

Stories like Jacobs’-of property taxes skyrocketing 20 percent, 50 percent and even 300 percent-were told repeatedly at the tax meeting, hosted by Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar.

About 150 longtime homeowners crowded Council Chambers at Village Hall, and many took a turn at the microphone, saying they were being taxed out of Oak Park. ElSaffar, Village President David Pope and state Sen. Don Harmon fielded questions, wading through the combination of factors that led to this year’s taxes.

“We’ve heard similar stories from lots of people,” ElSaffar said at the beginning of the meeting. Many of the people trying to appeal the taxes believe in the economic diversity of the community and believe in the importance of educational services, a large component of this year’s taxes, he said. They just can’t pay it anymore.

“Behind anger is often sadness or fear,” he said.

“We have been setting the stage for this for four years,” Pope said. “We run the risk of putting [Oak Park’s economic] diversity severely at risk. Thirty percent of the people here won’t be able to live here anymore,” and particularly at risk is the senior population, he said.

“This is the largest single item in my budget,” said another homeowner, Mary Shiffer. Her taxes rose 50 percent this year, from last year’s 7 to 8 percent rise. “My Christmas presents to my children are less.”

She recently moved here, but she said, “I probably would have reconsidered, knowing the rate of increase in this community.”

“If all these people want to put their houses on the market, it’s not good,” Shiffer added after the meeting.

“We are one referendum away from leaving Oak Park,” said Mary Cozzens, an Oak Park Township trustee. “I think we need to think long and hard about the referendums we are putting before the voters.”

Elementary School District 97 is up next for a referendum. There were several Dist. 97 officials in the audience who pointed out that the district only increased its levy 3.35 percent last year 2004.

“I’d just like to point out that District 97 is doing its part,” said Don Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance & operations.

“We have been listening very carefully,” said Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, president of the Dist. 97 Board of Education. But special education and healthcare costs have skyrocketed, she said.

“If District 97 increases taxes, I will quit my job to campaign against it,” said Joel Ostrow, a homeowner at the meeting.

“Property owners need to be aware of what a referendum will mean to them,” said Adrian Marquez, another homeowner. Harmon pointed out that he recently sponsored a bill through the General Assembly that will require government bodies seeking referenda to show voters, in dollars, what a referendum will mean to their property tax prices.

Any future Oak Park referendum will be in the new format, although taxing bodies here have tried to let voters know ahead of time what the impacts would be.

Many homeowners and even politicians expressed that they would only leave Oak Park after a struggle, and that many of the reasons the taxes are rising-to create good schools and to have good facilities-are connected to the reasons why they live in the village to begin with.

“Oak Park has tried in everything I’ve ever needed,” said Nancy Heezen, a homeowner. “We have to maintain what’s good about it. I love her so much. I just would hate to have to leave.”

1) Referenda. Local governmental bodies are legally allowed to increase taxes by 13 percent-unless they go to referendum. The library, park district and OPRF have gone to referendum recently.

2) School expenses. The majority of school expenses, about 70 to 80 percent, are paid by property taxes. Oak Park and River Forest High School decided to stretch a 2002-approved referendum into its fourth year, increasing its part of the levy 18 percent last year. Although Dist. 97 has not increased its levy as much, it has used bonds to raise money for the school system, and it has cut expenses in many places. At the state level, representatives have discussed shifting the tax burden of schools from property tax to income tax or sales tax. However, Harmon pointed out, this would not necessarily solve the problem. Because Oak Park is affluent compared to many other districts in Illinois, many Oak Parkers might pay an equally high amount of taxes through income tax. “Politicians do not like to talk about raising the income tax,” he admitted. “I don’t think there is clarity is what [the tax swap] means for Oak Park.” But he is open to input from constituents, he added.

3) Increasing value of real estate, particularly two-story houses, townhouses and bungalows. Ninety percent of condos received a tax decrease this year, since they are not appreciating in value as rapidly as the bigger homes.

4) Tax shifting. The long-term homeowner’s exemption, which ran from 2002 to 2005, was not renewed at the state level this year. This means that many long-term homeowners, particularly ones with large homes that appreciated rapidly, got an even more dramatic increase because they had been protected from the increase the last time around. The 7 percent tax cap law was supposed to prevent some shifting, but it did not protect certain groups of taxpayers the way the long-term homeowners exemption did.

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