I opposed the Oak Park village board’s recently passed property tax increase for 2008, as well as most of the other tax and fee increases, which I believe were higher than necessary to provide the services we needed to pay for this year, but that shouldn’t obscure the real progress we made in passing the 2008 budget.
The tax and fee increases, my colleagues argued, send a positive message to bond-rating agencies that we have the resolve to address our fiscal problems-namely, the lack of a cash reserve in the general fund and deficits in the water, solid waste, and parking funds. A strong bond rating lowers the cost of village borrowing, and protecting the rating can be seen as responsible stewardship of the public purse.
Fair enough, but the tax and fee increases send a tone-deaf message to the community, because what I heard while campaigning last spring was that Oak Park is becoming less and less affordable for middle-class residents. People look around and see brick streets, Marion Street, the new public works facility, and are saying, “That’s all very nice, but how much did it cost?” There is a sense in the community that our local governments are living beyond our collective means.
Just as we began this year’s budget process, I was talking with a fellow parent after we had signed up our kids at the last minute for an after-school program. He was genuinely upset as he confided that the $200 he paid for the program was “just not in my budget.” And so as I’ve listened to my colleagues justify this year’s tax and fee hikes as “modest,” I wonder how many folks we are pushing past their tipping point in terms of their ability and desire to remain in Oak Park.
I also opposed the tax and fee hikes because I didn’t want them to blur the progress we made toward restoring fiscal discipline to our 2008 budget. With new trustees leading the effort, we cut $3.6 million out of a $50 million operating budget, which I believe will result in a leaner and more efficient village hall. And we set in motion a new level of oversight that will put us back on sound financial footing and help hold down future increases in taxes and fees.
We began to restore the general fund cash reserve, which recent boards have spent into negative territory rather than make the tough decisions to cut spending or raise taxes. We stopped committing new dollars without evaluating their impact on the budget, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, we actually reviewed a financial audit rather than just filing it away.
In 2008, we will go further: initiating quarterly budget reviews, requiring departments that propose to spend beyond their budget during the fiscal year to come to us for approval, and adopting strategies to make the parking fund solvent and to restore the general fund balance. We will work with partner agencies to make sure we are getting the appropriate bang for our buck. And we will continue to shape the budget process itself so we can leave a legacy to future boards of a more easily understood and navigated process that fosters effective fiscal leadership.
If there were one year when we could have given folks a breather on taxes, and at the same time earned the community’s confidence in our fiscal stewardship, this was the year. In the final analysis, however, the news is at least half good, as the village board heads into 2008 focused on continuing to restore effective budgetary oversight and fiscal discipline to village government.
nJon Hale is an Oak Park village trustee.