The Oak Park Board of Trustees is poised to place an advisory referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot asking whether the village should further study merging with three other taxing bodies – the library, the park district and the township.
Oak Park’s Taxing Bodies Efficiencies Task Force, which was established by the Oak Park village board at the beginning of the year to find tax savings in the village, recommended at the July 23 board meeting that the village ask residents the question this fall.
The ballot question would be advisory and merely direct the village to further study consolidation, but members of the three taxing bodies potentially impacted testified Monday that they have been left out of the discussion.
Several members of the public and various elected officials took issue with the original language proposed by the task force and written by David Pope, task force chairman and former village president.
The question proposed by the task force is as written: “Seeking ways to reduce the property tax burden experienced by Oak Park residents, shall the community consider the merger and consolidation of co-terminus taxing districts – these include but are not limited to the Village of Oak Park, Oak Park Township, the Oak Park Public Library, and the Park District of Oak Park.”
“This is a push poll,” said resident Kent Dean, adding that neither the village nor the task force has any evidence that consolidating the four government entities would result in cost savings. “Don’t ask the people to pay for your push poll.”
Trustees agreed and directed Village Attorney Paul Stephanides to remove the language stating: “Seeking ways to reduce the property tax burden experienced by Oak Park residents”.
Vic Guarino, chairman of the Park District of Oak Park Board, said asking the public before more research is conducted would be “putting the cart before the horse.”
He noted that unlike the other taxing bodies the village has a high debt burden and poorly funded pension funds for employees. “What’s to stop them from using funds (from other taxing bodies) to pay down its own debts?” Guarino questioned.
Guarino encouraged the board to table the issue until more information is gathered about any potential savings that would come from consolidation.
Resident Lisa Putado told the board she believes the idea of merging the various taxing bodies is undemocratic because it consolidates power with the Oak Park village board and removes elected officials from the ballot. “I would like to continue to elect those people,” she said.
Oak Park Township Supervisor Claremarie Keenan denounced the proposal, noting that the task force sent a questionnaire to the various taxing bodies but did not distribute the responses to its members prior to voting in favor of the consolidation question.
“We learned at the July 10 meeting of the task force that our questionnaire responses and those of the park district and the village had not yet been shared with the task force,” she said. “We learned that at the end of the meeting, after the task force debated and voted in favor of a recommendation the village board place an advisory referendum concerning consolidation on the November ballot.”
“That is not only inefficient but duplicitous. We responded, participating in good faith, only to be dismissed.”
Pope said people have testified to the village from both perspectives – one side saying the various taxing bodies should consider merging, while others have voiced opposition to such a move.
He said the task force aims to give a full report to the board of trustees in August, which will include a number of proposals to reduce the cost of local government, but the task force had to get moving quicker on the advisory referendum because the deadline to adopt the resolution to get the question on the November ballot is Aug. 20.
Pope said salaries and benefits constitute about 80 percent of the cost of municipal government. Those costs are partly driving the increase in the tax levy.
“We need to acknowledge that we’re taxing people out of this community, and we have been taxing people out of this community for a very long time,” Pope said.
Trustee Simone Boutet called the proposed advisory referendum “a plot” by the village to take over the township, comparing it to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
She noted that the three smaller governmental bodies are currently limited in how much they are allowed to raise their tax levy, but the village is not.
“Collaborating other governmental bodies into the village would take tax-capped bodies and bring them into the village, where we are not tax capped, so they’re automatically stuck having to limit their tax increases and we are not,” she said.
The Oak Park Board of Trustees has increased its tax levy by almost $14 million over the last decade, she said.
“Who are we as this village board to tell everybody else that we know how to save you money, when we have not been doing our due diligence saving money on our own?” she asked.
Oak Park Trustee Jim Taglia, a former member of the Township’s board, and Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb took issue with Boutet’s characterization that the proposal was a plot by the village.
“(T)here’s so much distrust in federal government and state government, people are going to believe that there is a plot, and I want to make it clear that I’m not aware of a plot,” he said.
Abu-Taleb said the meetings of the task force have been open and transparent and that the suggestion that there is a plot by its members and other elected officials is “insulting to us as her colleagues, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Trustee Bob Tucker said he is not sure how he would vote on such an advisory referendum. “I like our park district. I like our township. I like that they have their own elected boards, but I do understand, to the fundamental notion of trying to reduce the tax burden, that this might help,” he said.
He made a motion to remove the introductory language from the advisory question to make it more neutral, and added that it makes sense to ask the question.
“You know, Oak Parkers are smart – they’ll know one way or another what’s being asked, how they want to react to that,” Tucker said.
The board is expected to take up the question again and take a final vote at its next meeting set for July 30.