Tax whining has replaced Colt building Armageddon as the public passion of choice lately in Oak Park. If River Foresters are upset about the latest tax bills, they aren’t letting on, but Oak Parkers are clearly outraged.

It’s our own fault, the gripers grumble. We voted for all these referenda the last 10 years. What did you expect?

I’m sympathetic about the tax burden. And I agree we’ve passed an unusual number of referenda since 1996. But I find the anti-referendum diatribes rather indiscriminate. You would think, to read our letters section, that every referendum is an act of pure public-sector piracy that can’t be justified under any circumstances.

The anti-tax mentality is a peculiar one-hard-headed and exhibiting little depth of thought. If all taxes are bad, how does government fund services? Maybe these folks are libertarians who believe that, magically, all our problems would disappear if we just eliminated government, or reduced government to the very barest essentials-presumably retaining police and military forces to protect their assets from the thundering hordes of the have-nots. Economic libertarians maintain everything-again, magically-would turn out fine if we just let the free market have its unfettered way, all historical precedents to the contrary notwithstanding.

You have to admire their faith in economics-and you have to hope they never get anywhere near the seats of real political power.

I have to endure a few of these stubborn reactionaries in my life, and for years I’ve been trying to get across one very simple point: Taxes are not inherently evil as long as they’re used to improve the quality of people’s lives. It’s how tax revenue is spent, not the taxes themselves, that is the critical issue.

In 30 years, I haven’t heard a single conservative say we need to make government more efficient. All they ever say is “no new taxes”-as if government revenue could be capped in a world where costs keep rising. I have no argument with the criticism that government is wasteful and inefficient on the federal and state levels, but locally, it’s far from hopeless.

The American Revolution wasn’t based on “No Taxation.” The slogan was “No Taxation Without Representation,” and the ultimate in tax representation is a referendum, where taxpayers get to consider a request by a body of government for an increase and vote on whether they think it’s legitimate. It doesn’t get more democratic than that.

The question then isn’t, “Why did you pass all those referenda?” The question should be, “Were those referenda worth passing?” In other words, “What did we get in return for those tax increases?”

The most visible return from the recent flurry of referenda are the two new middle school buildings and a new main branch public library. Frankly, I don’t know if the middle school buildings were worth it. They may be-I just don’t know. Most of us are acquainted only with the exteriors, which are anywhere from non-descript to ugly, depending on your aesthetic sensitivity. No one will ever grow attached to these structures based on how they look. In that sense, the referendum was a failure. But inside? You’d have to talk to the people who work there, and the parents who send their kids there, and the students themselves. I suspect they’re a vast improvement over the dinky little former elementary schools they replaced, but how much of an improvement I couldn’t say.

If you want to bash that particular referendum, you first need to do your homework and find out for yourself. Otherwise, you’re just a knee-jerk referendum-basher and not very credible. If you can make a case, then you deserve to be listened to.

Passing a referendum is not necessarily a case of community spinelessness. Usually it’s a sign of community reinvestment. If you only want to pay enough taxes to make local institutions barely functional, then you’re probably only in this for yourself and even $1 in taxes is too many.

Next week: Library, park district and OPRF referenda-how do they rate?

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