On Nov. 18, I attended a meeting that discussed the planned expansion of the River Forest Park District by purchasing a commercial building to convert to a recreational center. Those who opposed the building fit into three categories: “Not in my backyard,” “we already have a recreational center a block away,” and “this is the time to reign in real estate taxes where we can.” Although the first two arguments have merit, I oppose this project because of its impact on real estate taxes.
Over the last 10 years, the real estate taxes in River Forest have doubled mostly because the values of our homes have doubled. However, 10 years ago the park district tax was 3.47 percent, and today it stands at 3.96 percent. Five years ago, it shot up to 4.8 percent of assessed value. Whatever the reason for increases in tax rates and tax payments, the residents of River Forest have dutifully paid off a park district bond that is now due to expire. It is as if we have bought a car and it is still working, but the park district now wants to borrow again and build an optional luxury at a financially difficult time.
The park district believes there is a “perfect storm” of financing availability, rates, construction costs and real estate prices that make this a can’t-miss project. I believe there is a perfect storm of decreasing property values, increasing costs to all taxing bodies that make up our real estate taxes, tremendous reduction in sales tax revenue, and state and county governments close to bankruptcy. We cannot make this decision by evaluating one property purchase by one governmental body. The taxpayers of River Forest must look at the whole. If there is a $100 a year in savings by not reissuing bonds, now is the time to take that savings. We can be assured there are other increases at the village and county levels just around the corner.
Another important issue is the 2011 reassessment of property values that is pending. Recently Lyons Township was assessed at a rate of 7 percent less. The Cook County assessor’s office has signaled that more reductions in assessed values are coming. This means that, if our taxing bodies keep their rates the same, their overall budget will be decreased by 7 percent. The question to the park district is, will it? When our property values went up, governments were pleased to take our money. What happens when they go down? All over Illinois, governments that rely on real estate taxes are going to have to answer this question.
There are many other reasons why this may not be the right project for River Forest, such as its location and impact. There is a very strong feeling that residents who are for this project object to the current River Forest Community Center due to the mix of people who use that facility or the programs offered. There is also no doubt that the park district board is looking to make a statement on what it can offer the residents of River Forest. All of the board’s hard work and good intentions cannot escape the one fact that there is too much financial uncertainty in the future, and that real estate taxes are most certainly going up.
Saying “no” to an optional luxury at this time should be the easy and solid decision all River Forest residents should make on Feb. 2.
Greg Lamacki is a 15-year River Forest resident, user of both the park district and community center, and part owner of a small restaurant management company in Chicago.