There were no pitchforks and there were no torches – those aren’t permitted in the library.
But at the meeting held by Oak Park residents to discuss rising property taxes the fear was palpable.
“It’s to a point where I can’t afford to live here anymore,” one woman said at the beginning of the meeting.
“I’m here because I think the single biggest threat to diversity in Oak Park is the tax situation,” said another woman.
One man noted since he moved to Oak Park about 10 years ago, his tax bill is up about 54 percent and approaching $15,000 a year. “I can afford to stay,” he said. “The question is whether I want to stay. I don’t know if I can leave because I’m not sure if I can sell my house.”
The question of whether they could stay in Oak Park for the long-term was a recurring theme amongst the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting.
The forum was set up as a result of residents discussing the issue on a Facebook group established in October called Oak Park Property Tax Watch – the group has grown to 648 members.
The meeting also was attended by officials from the Oak Park Board of Trustees, the Oak Park Library Board and Oak Park Township and the District 200 School Board.
Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar told the group that he was not surprised to see so many people voicing their concerns and joining the group because he’s seeing the same thing at the township.
“This last year, in particular, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing frustration about their ability to remain in Oak Park, so I understand why the group is so popular,” ElSaffar told the group.
Jim Peters, who joined the online discussion group, decided last month to hold the meeting at Oak Park Public Library, so residents could discuss the issue face to face.
He said the meeting was aimed at providing a “complementary element” to the online conversation and those taking place at the boards of various taxing bodies.
Peters, who has lived in the village for 42 years, said he took a close look at his retirement and expenses and figured he was going to pay about $7,000 over 10 years to live here as opposed to somewhere else like DuPage County.
“That was holding real well until about the last two years,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
The hour-long meeting broke into two groups following the introductions, where residents discussed concerns and posed possible solutions to reducing the rising tax burden. Each group provided three key issues discussed in each group.
Resident Josh Vanderberg, who was chosen to share the key issues from his group, said his group discussed the tradeoffs that would have to take place if Oak Park decreased the rate of money flowing to the various taxing bodies.
“Are we going to impact the progressive values of Oak Park by kind of starving these organizations of the funds needed to do those things?” he asked.
Vanderberg said the group also pressed the importance of increasing knowledge amongst residents about rising taxation in the village. His group also considered whether the village could consolidate taxing bodies, such as combining the village with the Oak Park Township, a move made by Evanston in recent years.
Resident Kitty Conklin said her group discussed the need to “change the culture in Oak Park.”
“We need to do things like take an approach to zero-based budgeting instead of figuring out what money are you going to get and how do I spend 100 percent of it,” she said.
She said the village also should aim to reduce redundancy in services from various taxing bodies in the village.
“Overall, change the culture around taxation and the operating in isolation that the various governmental units do,” she said. “We need an effective communication plan.”