During a Dec. 19 regular meeting, the Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a 2017 property tax levy of $71.1 million that is 3 percent, or around $2 million, more than last year’s levy.
The vote was opposed by a group of residents, including a current and a former Oak Park trustee, who were concerned that the measure would lead to higher property tax bills.
Dr. Alicia Evans, the district’s soon-to-depart assistant superintendent of business and operations, said that the levy is only an estimate. The final amount could change based on a variety of factors, such as the taxable value of new property constructed in the village. Evans said that a 2.1 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index accounts for most of the levy increase.
In a related matter, the district still plans on using the unanticipated $2.6 million it received — on top of $13.3 million it took in as a result of two successful referenda voters approved earlier this year — to pay down debt. That’s in addition to the district taking steps in July to abate referendum bonds that were issued to build the middle schools and upgrade the elementary schools.
District officials said the two measures will lead to a reduction of the overall 2017 levy by around $3.3 million. In a statement released on Dec. 21, the district explained that “overarching result” of the measures “is that the percentage of those bills that is attributed to District 97 is expected to be lower than it was last year.”
The district also decided to postpone the sale of $10 million in capital bonds that it had planned for this month until next year while also reducing the total amount of bonds it plans to sell from $10 million to $7.5 million.
The move, coupled with the July abatement, will result in the district paying approximately $5 million less in bond payments for 2017 than what officials had projected before the April referenda. Officials said that it would also generate savings in interest payments of between $100,000 and $200,000.
But some residents weren’t satisfied with the district’s measures. During the Dec. 19 meeting, Dan Moroney, an Oak Park village trustee, said that, instead of servicing its debt with the extra $2.6 million in unanticipated revenue it collected, the district should apply the money to its operating levy.
“This simple move is straightforward and will put the future operating levy at the level that voters approved in April,” Moroney said, adding that, if the district doesn’t act on his recommendation, the extra $2.6 million it captured would be included in future levies, resulting in $30 million in extra revenue over 10 years, assuming 3 percent inflation.
District 97 board President Holly Spurlock said that the board would utilize a variety of tools at its disposal, such as vote on resolutions and enact levy reductions, that won’t make the $2.6 million increase permanent.
“We want to assure people that our decision regarding this year’s levy does not represent a permanent increase,” the district’s statement explained.
“Our goal from a financial standpoint has been and will continue to be finding ways to meet the needs of our more than 6,000 students, while also working with the administration, [our financial oversight and review committee], our fellow governing bodies and the community as a whole to reduce the tax burden here in Oak Park.”
Greg Marsey, a former Oak Park village trustee, said that he strongly supports Moroney’s recommendation before pointing out the struggles that many current residents experienced with paying property taxes.
“I don’t know if you fully appreciate just how at risk the diversity of this town has fully become,” Marsey said. “If this continual uptick in taxes isn’t stemmed soon, you’ll only be as diverse as the people who can come here and afford the six-figure cost of entry.”
Marsey recommended that the district work with other taxing bodies through organizations such as the InterGovernmental (IGOV) Assembly on ways to stem the increase.
“If you don’t get serious about your participation in IGOV about this tax burden and about tackling this collectively then it is only going to continue and it’s not going to be too long until Oak Park looks like every lily-white suburb on the North Shore,” he said.