As we look ahead to a new year in Oak Park and River Forest, the storylines seem certain to converge around issues of taxing and affordability in our villages.
Start with the abomination of the Trump tax bill and its impact on the deductibility of your local property tax payments in our high-tax communities. With that deduction capped at $10,000, it leaves a very large percentage of local homeowners losing a portion of a singular middle-class tax benefit. It will make those semi-annual payments which total up to $13,000 or $17,000 or $20,000 or more even more painful.
As 2017 closed, both Oak Park’s public elementary school and high school boards grappled with passing new property tax levies.
In a single week, both boards met and saw friction in an annual governance exercise that has typically been routine. District 97 got lectured last week at its meeting by Dan Moroney, the recently elected village trustee. He raised questions related to flaws in last spring’s readily approved D97 tax referendum and how those issues, while acknowledged at the time by the district, could have residual impact on taxes collected by the elementary schools.
(Agree or disagree with Moroney’s point, we’d note his very unusual and, to us, problematic, decision to upbraid another taxing body in a public setting. We’re not sticklers for protocol, but what goes around does come around. Moroney should focus on village affairs and work to build back channels to give feedback to other boards.)
The high school board, Thursday night, had second thoughts on its own planned levy hike. With tens of millions currently stuffed in its vault, there was movement on the board to adopt a levy with zero increase as a nod to the rising tax burdens on taxpayers. The board eventually voted on a levy less than 1 percent.
Oak Park’s village board, which will argue — correctly — that its tug on property taxes pales next to the local schools, is nonetheless back in the habit of hiking its property tax levy after long years when it worked to actively minimize property tax hikes. That said, the village regularly raises a raft of fees from garbage collection to cable franchise to parking permits, which gives it cash from taxpayers through means other than the property tax.
At village hall, the rising demand for cash is driven by the underfunded pension crisis that plagues municipalities across the state. Eventually, it will menace school districts as the state offloads teacher pension obligations. Pensions, as long predicted, are coming to consume the spending of local government. Taxes will rise and services will be stunted. This is an albatross.
Everything is not preordained, however. Voters could put the kibosh on the grand plans chatter for the two local park districts to build a $40 million-plus community recreation center. Especially if such a center were to be proposed on a piece of land that currently pays property taxes or could be developed to pay greater property taxes.
Oak Park and River Forest need to continue active development of commercial and residential projects. Whether these are high-rises in downtown Oak Park, mixed-use at Lake and Lathrop, remaking Madison Street and North Avenue to replace long obsolete small office buildings, or luring a new Target store, we say, yes, to all of the above. We can’t fall for the nonsensical debate suggesting development is unnecessary because it will never lower taxes. Development is no tax panacea, but it is a hedge against perpetually rising taxes.
Finally, we’d note as 2018 arrives that both school districts are at the start of long-term teacher contract negotiations. Faculty costs are by far the greatest driver of costs — as well as education! — in our schools. We’re not looking for givebacks. We’re not looking for a wage freeze. We are looking for contracts that are realistic for this moment in terms of both wages and benefits. Modest raises. Rip up “steps and lanes” cash giveaways. Get creative in sharing costs on health.
Tax saturation is here. Our diversity is at stake.