It was a good start last week as a group of Oak Park residents, previously assembled only in a Facebook group, came to life in a meet-up at the main library. The topic: concern over the impact of Oak Park’s ever-rising property tax bills.
Some 50 people gathered to both put a face to a name and to talk about priorities of the group going forward.
Among the ideas forwarded out of small group sessions were consolidating government bodies with a focus on combining the township and village governments. Evanston accomplished that goal in recent years while River Forest village government’s attempt at a hostile takeover of its township turned into a nasty and failed effort. Merging township and municipal governments is a position the Journal has supported in both Oak Park and River Forest over decades.
We’d also resurrect our support for a serious effort to merge fire departments in both villages as a way to save on staffing and equipment and building maintenance. It’s an idea that gets lip service from public officials but has yet to rise to the level of serious debate. A strong group pushing for tax savings could change that.
A segment of those at last week’s meeting said Oak Park needed a change in culture around taxation. We agree. Too often taxing bodies have actively proclaimed their fiduciary duty to tax at maximum rates with the explanation that they were elected solely to represent the interests of their distinct taxing body. That is the sort of silo thinking that has gotten us into this predicament and leaves a body such as the Council of Governments, an informal group representing leaders of all local taxing bodies, debating the joint purchase of office supplies when their vista should be much wider.
There are tests just ahead for each of our taxing bodies. The school districts are presently negotiating new teacher contracts. Will raises be at the rate of inflation or will the school boards fall back on the circular logic that they must compare all teacher raises to what “comparable” districts are paying faculty? That indefensible rationale has resulted in a lot of pay hikes far in excess of the private sector over decades.
And support them or not, four new downtown Oak Park high-rises are either built or underway. They will generate substantial new property taxes and, in truth, not a great deal of added costs to schools, public works or fire. The Oak Park Property Tax Watch Group should seek pledges now from each taxing body that they use that new revenue to offset property taxes currently paid by homeowners and commercial property owners.
Finally, we were glad to hear some participants in this meeting laud Oak Park’s progressive values and historic diversity. Taxing wisely is not automatically in opposition to investing in social programs that foster our shared progressive values.