I’m writing this letter as a response to Anthony Shaker’s recent letters to the board and to the press regarding the pending renewal of the Special Service Area (SSA) that funds the Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) business association. Despite Mr. Shaker’s allegations of conflict-of-interest, I initially decided not to respond publicly, and allow Village Attorney Ray Heise’s brief on the matter to carry the day. However, in an online sidebar published by this newspaper last Wednesday, Mr. Shaker expanded his comments to include Atty. Heise, my colleagues on the village board and members of the DTOP board, including the threat of litigation, so I decided a public response was required.
Mr. Shaker claims that I violated conflict-of-interest provisions of Illinois law when I voted in favor of drafting an amendment to exempt property tax payments to DTOP for residential property owners within the boundaries of the downtown SSA. I did vote in favor of drafting the amendment, I am a residential property owner within the boundaries of the downtown SSA, and, if the amendment is passed along with the enabling legislation to renew the SSA, I will be spared future property tax payments to fund DTOP. Mr. Shaker considers this financial gain, hence his charge. However, his letters on the subject to date have not included several key pieces of information.
As Mr. Heise noted in his brief, Illinois elected officials are not required to list their personal residence when submitting annual disclosure statements. The disclosure statement is designed to elicit details of any business dealings between elected officials and entities doing business with or receiving assistance from local governmental bodies, not the property tax implications of private residences. More importantly, the matter on which I voted was simply a directive from the board to Attorney Heise to draft an amendment exempting residential property owners within the boundaries of the SSA, not a resolution to approve the amendment or the extension of the SSA itself. I will be happy to recuse myself from that vote, when the time comes.
Regardless, the reason for my initial vote is simple: it was simply the right thing to do. The purpose of the downtown SSA has always been to benefit business owners within the district. In past board discussions on the matter, the SSA has been described as “business owners taxing themselves.” However, the original SSA taxed all property owners within the district, including residential property owners, who arguably do not draw a direct benefit from the “self-tax” on business owners. To Downtown Oak Park’s credit, this disparity was acknowledged, and DTOP therefore recommended exempting the property tax requirement for residential property owners as a tenet of SSA renewal. There are hundreds of downtown residential property owners who will be affected by this decision and fortunately for DTOP, the sum total of that property tax income represents less than 2 percent of their annual budget. That said, if the amendment is passed, I’ll be happy to contribute to DTOP my annual property tax “savings” ($176.65 in 2006).
However, these issues are just a sidebar. Mr. Shaker’s real upset stems from what he considers improper notification regarding the SSA renewal, even though the village followed proper procedures. On this point, he’s asked for an extension of the public review period of the proposed renewal, and though not legally required to do so, the board has agreed to that request. He’s also expressed concern regarding the limited benefit derived by non-retail businesses, despite the fact that his downtown holdings include first-floor retail. Finally, he’s concerned about the extension of the SSA into perpetuity (meaning until such time as the village board decides to revoke it), even though that actually allows the SSA to be revoked at any time, rather than binding future boards, and the village as a whole, to its existence over a pre-determined period of time (the original ordinance established the SSA for a period of 25 years).
Mr. Shaker has made statements alluding to litigation against the village board and DTOP, should the SSA be renewed as currently proposed. While it’s hard to imagine any such pursuit would end in victory, it remains his prerogative. So be it.
Greg Marsey is a member of the Oak Park village board.