OK. I’m writing this column Monday afternoon. That’s before the Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force presents its 35-page report to the Oak Park Village Board tonight. The village board is the body that commissioned the seven-member ad hoc committee to study the impact of high property taxes in Oak Park and to make recommendations on how to contain them going forward.

Now I’ve read a lot of reports in my four decades covering Oak Park. A lot of them were interesting. Some worthless. Most of them ignored.

But here’s a direct and common-sense report that ought to be read and followed. Among the simple declarations: Property taxes in Oak Park are flying, rising far faster than either inflation or neighboring communities. Generous local voters have chosen to raise their own taxes by approving a range of referendums over the past two decades for the library and park districts and the two school districts. With its home rule powers, the village government has also done a fine job of hiking taxes without needing voter referendums. Taxing bodies have driven up costs dramatically by paying high salaries and all sorts of benefits to their employees. The pension obligations are huge and in terms of teachers will be dropped back on local taxpayers if the state can figure out how to do it.

The report says taxes are putting long-term values of diversity, affordability and integration at risk and driving older Oak Parkers out of town.

For those willing to pay attention, the full report mitigates overstated worries that the coming November advisory referendum on whether Oak Park should consider merging government entities represented some sort of power grab by the village or was the primary recommendation coming from this group. 

It has been assumed by most that “consolidation” meant village government had its eyes on Oak Park Township. If, however, there is a local taxing body that comes off well in this report it is the tight-with-a-nickel township. The township, said the report, pays its employees at the far low end of salaries in local government and they haven’t gone to voters for a tax referendum since the 1970s.

Will Oak Park taxes ever drop? Will the new density mitigate increases? The report is realistic. Based on the referendums already passed and built into the taxing structure, taxes won’t go down. And history tells us as new development expands the tax base, spending just keeps rising to absorb the increased revenue. That’s a point I keep making. Taxing bodies must consciously not just absorb the new dollars.

So what to do? Boldly the report calls on citizens to demand, and taxing bodies to acquiesce in, avoiding all new tax referenda until 2030, surprisingly just 12 years out. But we know both school districts are already eyeing what they consider inevitable asks. This would be a gigantic culture shift, especially with the Imagine OPRF facilities plan being debated and the OPRF teachers contract going to mediation.

While coyly avoiding mention of OPRF and its absurd $100 million cash reserve, the report says all reserves ought to be spent down to reasonable levels and that any major infrastructure projects should be paid out of reserves before any additional debt is taken on.

The report proposes the creation of a “citizen-led, village-wide Community Financial Oversight Commission” which would aggregate financial information among all taxing bodies, convert it into understandable and matching formats, monitor spending levels, advocate for sharing services (a single unified payroll function is mentioned).

Elected officials who have said for years that they are elected with the sole fiduciary responsibility to build up the library, the elementary schools, etc. will not be fans of oversight. 

And while I worry about single-issue candidates focused only on taxes, that’s where the citizens come in.

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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...