It didn’t make it into the final article the Journal published, but it is, I think, a telling detail. It is a detail that explains in part why Oak Park’s property taxes are so high and why we’re having a moment, or having a movement, about those high taxes.

In December it was time for the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School board to pass its annual property tax levy. Usually routine. A necessary final step after an administration and school board wrap up a lengthy and thoughtful budget-setting process.

The legal notice had been published in the Journal, the item was on the agenda, the plan was to hike property taxes by 2.91 percent, at the legal limit, within recent norms. But at the board table, questions were raised by school board members, led by Tom Cofsky, about why, with the oversized cash reserve this high school sits on, was it necessary and fair to taxpayers, to take the maximum possible tax hike?

The response of Tod Altenburg, the highly respected OPRF business manager, was that he always proposed the maximum unless he had other direction from the school board.

Now the board, effectively unanimous, chose to cut the increase from nearly 3 percent to just less than 1 percent. And that 1 percent hike represents a wise decision by the school, allowing it to capture the coming upturn in the village’s overall assessment as large new building projects come online.

Good for the school board. 

But why did this discussion take place at the 11th hour? Why hadn’t the school board, early in the budget process, given the superintendent and the business manager clear instructions that its intention was to hold the line on increasing property taxes as part of a strategy to reduce the absurd cash hoard that the school, over many years, more or less lifted illicitly from taxpayers by playing a loophole from an earlier referendum?

Containing taxes — few people are actually expecting their taxes to decline — is a worthy, if challenging, goal. It needs to be on the minds of every taxing body. With every choice made.

There are pressures on costs that make this path hard. Oak Park’s village government held the line on property taxes for years but is now facing up to severe shortfalls in funding for police and fire pensions that have to be addressed. That’s going to cost property taxpayers. For now, the two school districts are not on the hook for pensions as this cost is handled (mishandled) at the state level.

Both school districts are currently negotiating new teacher contracts. Holding raises to reasonable levels will be a critical indicator if these districts have heard the concerns of taxpayers. 

To its core, Oak Park is a progressive community, one that sees value in the work of government to improve the lives of residents. But those ideals, and their manifestations in programs such as the Collaboration for Early Childhood, aren’t in opposition to prudent spending, to defining the difference between needs and wants.

There’s talk of a new police station at $12 million. Of a park district community center at $45 million. And, of course, new pools at the high school at a sum to be determined. Do teachers deserve a mostly invisible “step increase” in their pay on top of the negotiated pay raise? They’ve always gotten those hidden hikes. Will this be the year the school boards just say no? Fan or not, the new high-rises will add millions in new property taxes to local government coffers. Development is a key aspect of holding the line on taxes. When that money rolls in, will taxing bodies just luxuriate in new revenue or will they show restraint in tax levies? Same question as local TIFs expire and tax dollars flow back to taxing bodies. 

Choices need to be made. But it’s not between being a progressive village and being some sort of anti-government burg we don’t recognize.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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