So a third-tier candidate for mayor of Chicago floated the notion that the city should annex Oak Park and a few other cash-flow-positive suburbs. Garry McCarthy, the former chief of police and soon to be the former chief of police, made the argument that moving a few hundred thousand taxpaying citizens within newly expanded city limits would create a fresh pool of money to pay the city’s overwhelming pension debt.
And what would be the impetus for Oak Parkers, Evergreen Parkers, Oak Lawners and whatever it is that Norridge residents call themselves — Norridgeans? — to actively vote to attach themselves to Chicago? McCarthy notes that the city of Chicago has much lower tax rates and that would make annexation appealing to suburbanites who feel taxed and abused.
Among other arguments, I’d suggest that city residents have historically, though less so under Rahm Emanuel’s pretty stern tax increases, paid low property taxes because they weren’t anywhere close to funding their pensions in the first place. There is a correlation.
A little history lesson. Once upon a time, late 1800s more precisely, Oak Park, Cicero, Austin (might have been another burg in there, too) were all linked in what was called Cicero Township. It was an unhappy alliance. And that opened the annexation door. Chicago came calling, knowing that many of its residents were moving west to the grand community of Austin as public transit made it easy to reach downtown. The annexation of Austin came to a referendum vote. Austinites had little interest in being gobbled up by Chicago, but the vote was among all the citizens of Cicero Township. And, acting on a grudge, the whole of Cicero Township voted the community of Austin into the city of Chicago.
I’ve often wondered what the history of Austin would look like if, like its sister city of Oak Park, it had remained an independent community. Certainly with decades of disinvestment now taking a harsh toll, city government hasn’t done Austin any favors.
Now Oak Park is not going to be annexed into Chicago. Nor will Evergreen Park or Norridge. This is just a vague notion from a candidate trying to get noticed in a field of more than a dozen candidates.
But it gives us all a moment to reflect on why an independent Oak Park is so critical and so great. Yes, property taxes in Oak Park have gotten out of hand and concerted effort to hold them down is important and warranted. And bashing Chicago isn’t the answer either. Chicago is a fantastic city and is, in many ways, Oak Park’s lifeblood. But it has complex problems of its own making and grabbing up Oak Park, Pac Man style, isn’t a solution.
Because of Oak Park’s independence and independent spirit, its high taxes allow us to have two strong school systems. Imperfect but a damned site better than CPS. We have a strong police department that works collaboratively with the city police districts along our Austin Boulevard and North Avenue borders while working to insulate us from the higher crime rates in the city.
We spend money — go on, debate away — on fostering diversity, on public art, on bluestone sidewalks, some of them heated. We built a spectacular main library. We attract big money developers. We are pioneers in early childhood education. We compost. We push toward equity. It costs.
We are getting ready to elect our own leaders to run village government, the schools, parks and library. Never underestimate the impact of our self-contained governance. Try getting the Chicago Park District’s full focus on Columbus Park. Try getting the CPS school board to pay attention to Austin High School. Try getting the Chicago police to shift cops from Lincoln Park to Austin.
Oak Park’s limited geography, our intense self-focus, sometimes obsession, is our great gift. So in the closing days of Chicago’s mayoral primary Garry McCarthy is going to need a new hobby horse to ride into 10th place.