Concerns over the impact of the expiring downtown Oak Park and Madison Street Tax Increment Financing Districts on the tax levy didn’t escape the Park District of Oak Park’s Dec. 5 Committee of the Whole meeting. 

Some 15 residents attended the meeting, most of them objecting to current plans by the park district to claim the full financial benefit of the expiring TIFs. The park board listened to residents, telling them that the parks final decision on setting next year’s tax levy will be made Dec. 19 at its regular board meeting.

The park district has argued that the tax increase residents would actually receive if it claims the full TIF benefit is relatively small, especially compared to other taxing bodies, and that property tax increases would have less adverse effect than raising park district fees. But the residents present argued the small increases from various taxing bodies add up, and some argued that the park district can save money by cutting programs and expenses. 

Like most taxing bodies, the park district is subject to the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL), which normally caps the tax levy based on a formula that factors in the consumer price index and Equalized Assessed Value past and present. But it is allowed to raise the cap above that limit to capture the extra revenue that comes from the TIF’s expiration, as well as to account for new construction. 

According to the memo by Kyle Cratty, the park district’s director of finance, “The individual taxpayer will only see their taxes increase by the CPI or 1.9 percent.” Jan Arnold, the parks executive director, said the tax increase would amount to around $4.63 for a property worth between $300,000 – $400,000.

In late November, Kitty Conklin, a village board meeting regular, launched a petition urging all Oak Park taxing bodies not to raise property taxes, and instead use the extra revenue to “provide relief” to taxpayers. On Dec. 5, the petition had 1,261 signatures. 

Conklin live-streamed a 40-minute portion of the park meeting over Facebook, mostly capturing the public comments.

In the video, Commissioner Chris Wollmuth explained he was originally inclined to oppose raising property taxes but that his view has now changed. With the state minimum wage gradually increasing, he reasoned, the park district, which employs many seasonal workers, could either increase program fees or raise taxes.

“[Raising the fees] is not something anyone wanted to see happening — pushing people out of the park district,” Wollmuth said. “So spreading it more broadly, [through the] tax levy rather than potentially huge increases for specific programs.”

Conklin argued that, given that TIFs didn’t hurt the park district finances before, it had no reason to raise taxes now.

“We have done, we, the taxpayers, have done our part, but now we feel that it is really pretty egregious that the park district is taking such a large amount of money, new money, from taxpayers,” she said. “We don’t want relief in form of scholarships or subsidies. We want you and your counterpart boards to stop the unsustainable drain on our wallets.”

Jack Powers argued that the park district should save money by cutting programs that are lightly attended.

“Instead of finding new ways to spend more money on new programs, the board should instead be looking at ways to cull the herd of programs to make way for new offerings,” he said.

Pati Flannery said that, while she expected her taxes to be high when she and her family moved to Oak Park in 2005, she didn’t expect them to increase by 60 percent since then.

“I keep hearing ‘equity, equity, equity’ — what does it even mean?” she said. “I think we all care about people being taken care of, but [my family] can’t even take vacations anymore.”

Susan Caudell, who said that she and her family regularly use the parks and its facilities, agreed with those points, adding that, if the park district needs more money, it should go to referendum and make a case to the taxpayers.

“If you need money for that, we can decide — yes, we need to be doing that,” she said. 

Park district spokesperson Diane Stanke told the Journal the board has taken all the input under advisement.

“The park board appreciates public input,” she said. “They listened attentively to all comments and will take these remarks under consideration when making their final decision at [the Dec. 19 board meeting].”

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...

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