For 23 years, taxing bodies in Oak Park have been starved for revenue, scrimping and saving, using stubby pencils in decrepit buildings, paying paltry wages. All because of those darned Tax Increment Finance districts downtown and along Madison Street.
Now those TIFs are expiring, the clouds are lifting and in hiking their property tax revenues by millions to capture those TIF dollars, the schools, the library, the parks, the township are finally getting what is rightfully theirs.
All is right with the world again.
What’s that you say? During the onerous TIF years the library built a grand new building and fully renovated a branch after voters approved a major construction referendum, the high school basically absconded with $100 million in “phase-ins” which they piled up in the vault, District 97 wound up with a brand new HQ on Madison paid for with $7 million from the TIF, voters coughed up money via referenda for both school districts, everybody got raises and raises, and along the way the taxing bodies actually got a good share of the money intended for the TIF via early distributions.
Now the TIFs are ending and all the taxing bodies in town — with the exception of village government — have either decided to or are about to balloon their tax levies to gather in every TIF nickel next year and for every year to follow. They are setting a new baseline for future taxation that explodes any simplistic notion of state-mandated tax caps.
Economic development, the whole point of TIFs, is intended to make the tax pie bigger so individual taxpayers — homeowners, apartment renters, commercial property owners — can maybe get some relief from the Oak Park’s stupefying tax burden. The TIFs, despite their warts, worked. New development was created. But the tax mitigation doesn’t work if the taxing bodies just suck up all the dollars.
“If I sound bitter, maybe I am,” said Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park’s village manager, of the reality that every other taxing body is in guzzle mode.
David Pope, a two-term village president and until a year back chair of the Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force, said, “The consequences are significant, profoundly significant for a lot of people who were just barely getting by.”
The PR and finance folks at the various taxing bodies are uniformly spinning this as “We’re just taking our usual, modest, fiscally disciplined tax-capped increases of 1.9 to 3 percent. Same as always. And over here on the side, well, we really have no choice but to also permanently take all the available dollars due to the TIF expirations.”
Oak Park taxpayers are about to get jobbed.
At least the park district has elucidated a plan on how it intends to spend its windfall. Might be a good plan or a bad plan, but they at least sought some cover. The parks are freezing program fees for two years, doling out sliding-scale discounts for those less well off, and funding the new minimum-wage hikes for its legion of summer kid staffers.
At least the vote at the township to approve this money grab was 3-2.
Meanwhile over at the library, the explanations on how it will mainline $693,144 in new TIF funds into its veins are exceedingly vague. They have some modest capital improvement/software/security projects they will advance, and, lo and behold, they’ve discovered that, by comparison to some other libraries, some low- and mid-level staffers seem to be underpaid. Well, not for long. Raises, they are a-coming.
District 200 allows that this new manna from heaven will allow the district to avoid a tax hike referendum for a good long time. The whole point of tax caps is to allow voters to decide if they want to hand over more of their money! The OPRF board will continue its debate on this topic Thursday evening.
As Pope points out, “There certainly are not going to be any referendums run before 2030. No one would be stupid enough to run one.”
The man’s an optimist.