Since the early 1980s, the Village of Oak Park has misspent tens of millions of dollars on a failed economic development policy. The upcoming election is an opportunity for voters to chart a more responsible, accountable and transparent course toward development policy in the village.
The role of village government should be to provide the highest quality services (police, fire, public works, etc.) at the lowest possible cost. The school and park districts should have similar goals. If these goals are met, then the quality of life for all village residents will remain high and at least we will be getting good value for our sky-high real estate taxes.
When village trustees and staff overstep this role, they tend to get into trouble. This is especially true when the village, in an effort to expand its tax base, takes the lead position on private development projects or enters into complex development agreements. Volunteer trustees and village staff, however well meaning, do not have the day-to-day business expertise, personal financial risk or ultimate profit incentive to successfully negotiate deals with private developers.
It should be remembered that the development goals of the public and private sector can be very different. The village wants to provide the least development subsidy possible while a developer wants the greatest development subsidy possible. The village wants a project to pay the highest possible real estate tax while the developer wants to pay the lowest possible real estate tax. Too often, it is the village that is on the losing end of these negotiations.
Some of the village’s failed economic development initiatives over the years include:
– Giving away two acres of prime downtown real estate to Whiteco;
– Being forced to buy the Colt Building for $5 million to avoid even greater costs;
– Purchasing 20 privately-owned properties with no redevelopment plan.
Some of these projects and other initiatives were funded from the Downtown Oak Park Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. In the 24 years this TIF district has been around, $90 million in tax revenue has been diverted away from more deserving causes (including schools and parks).
After all this time and money, is anyone pleased with the overall appearance and retail mix along Lake Street? Have the financial benefits outweighed the costs? How much more time and money will be spent to subsidize private development in downtown Oak Park?
The Village Manager Association (VMA) has advocated this failed economic development policy since at least 1983. The VMA’s current group of slated candidates, Citizens for Progressive Action, has adopted this strategy as a major theme of their campaign platform.
In 2005, after the Whiteco fiasco, a group of citizens created the New Leadership Party (NLP) to reform the way business is conducted in Oak Park. A key part of the reform agenda includes a development policy that:
– Uses public money to support projects that benefit everyone in Oak Park, not just a small group of property owners and developers;
– Adopts clear zoning guidelines so the broader development community will actually understand and trust the entitlement process;
– Does not subsidize private real estate development projects simply because they pay their fair share of real estate taxes;
– Requires competitive bidding for the sale of all village property.
The current NLP trustees have been working hard to institute these economic development reforms. A vote for Rose Meyer, Barbara Dolan, Mary Shiffer and Harvey Lyon will ensure that these reforms continue.