Most Oak Parkers complain about their property taxes and few understand what’s behind the problem. It seems like I hear complaints about our property tax burden at every party, gathering or event I attend in Oak Park. Last fall, District 200 tried to pass a swimming pool property tax referendum that failed by the narrowest of margins. This upcoming April, District 97 will be fielding two referendums. One is for a bond issue and the other would fall into the category of general operating costs. Hopefully, this article will begin to lay the foundation as to what’s really behind our soaring property taxes and the magnitude of the problem.

So what’s been going on in Oak Park?

Over the last 15 years, we’ve approved a number of referendums for new schools (District 97), a new library, operating costs for District 200 and the park district. Each of those referendums last for many years and keep on adding to the cumulative levy. Add to that the village of Oak Park’s [home-rule] ability to levy property tax dollars without a referendum. It’s a recipe for sky-high property tax bills.

I started by comparing our property tax levy, in 2006 and 2016 to see what happened over the last 10 years. The property tax levy is the amount of money that each taxing body wants for their budget from property taxes. Each taxing body does its individual levy and then they get added together to create the total levy. I believe 2006 is an excellent base year because the housing market was still strong and it preceded the financial collapse and the “Great Recession.”

The results are surprising. In 2006, the total property tax levy amounted to $138 million. In 2016, our property tax levy (not counting the upcoming D97 referendum) will total almost $183 million. That’s an increase of $44.5 million over 10 years or a 32.2% increase. To put that growth rate into perspective, the Consumer Price Index for the Chicago area grew by 11.6% during that same time. Net, our aggregate property tax burden has grown by three times the rate of inflation.

In the chart of all the Oak Park taxing districts and how their respective levies changed over the last 10 years, far and away the taxing body with the largest relative increase in property taxes is the village of Oak Park with a 90.7% increase in the property tax levy over the last 10 years.

Of the $44.5 million of increased property taxes we’re paying now compared 2006, two-thirds went to the village of Oak Park and District 97. 

Upcoming elections

As we move toward our April elections, I think we all need to start a serious conversation about how much we’re willing and able to pay in property taxes across all local taxing bodies. At what point will ever-increasing property taxes impact property values, or force more diversity out of the village? For example, how can we keep our fixed-income seniors living here when their property taxes are increasing at three times the cost of living? 

Many of us have met the vast majority of our elected officials. Without exception, these are very motivated, intelligent individuals. They want to make their institutions better and serve the public. That’s the good news. Intrinsic to most of our elected officials is a natural desire to support “new and improved” programs that inevitably cost more. It’s very hard to say no to program expansion. It’s also very hard to hold the line fiscally, which means telling our professional staffs, teachers, policemen, firemen, etc. that we must do more with less money. 

What is the way out?

Ultimately, there is only one way to decrease the levy and bring it closer to the cost of inflation over time. Saying no and maintaining a balance of need and affordability will always be a tough challenge. It took us over 10 years to create this problem. The solution will not happen overnight. 

As taxpayers, we need to send this message to all our elected officials within our village at the upcoming election and beyond. They must be held accountable to be better stewards of our property tax dollars. My guess is that if we asked most taxpayers to grade the fiscal performance of our taxing bodies, they would hand out mainly failing grades based on this 10-year history. 

Let’s set a higher bar going forward.

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