The TIF district concept was created to help areas that were blighted. The districts were never intended for Oak Park. The craze for the districts became so heavy that they popped up everywhere across Illinois. Cash cows were created, with state approval, for some local governments.
If you were a separate taxing district, and not the “main” governing body (village), you were cut out of the increased property tax on new development. Other taxing bodies were able to tax property at the pre-TIF valuation.
District 200, District 97, the Park District of Oak Park, Oak Park Township and smaller governing bodies would not benefit for 20-plus years, in most cases, from the cash flowing in, or from the increased property values.
These other taxing units also received small amounts of “left-over” money from TIF districts. The village government historically spent some of their cash on prohibited expenses that were not to be paid for from TIF funds.
Accounting for all TIF dollars was hard to come by; thus, the cash cows spread in Oak Park. In addition, the Downtown Oak Park TIF was extended 13 years, based on a legal fluke that started with Gov. Ryan’s hometown of Kankakee. That resulted in extending the DTOP TIF for 13 extra years.
The anti-TIF voices were drowned out by the governing body, the village, and most citizens did not rally to block their expansion. The other governments got crumbs, and they waited for the one time they could take advantage of the TIF … one time … no cap … at the end of a TIF … take the cash. After that, tax caps apply. The schools came hat in hand for village financial aid, and the high school made a deal with the village for a parking garage — in order to not fight an extension.
This brings us to now — the recent spate of governing bodies taking their share of the taxes is the right action. The taxes apply to the properties in the TIF districts where property values rose due to new economic growth.
TIFs do not lower your taxes. However, the homeowner is going to see a 1.9 percent increase or a bit more which is tagged on by the state to cover the deadbeats.
You can’t cut budgets to get out of the tax crisis. Should we cut sports programs? Should we cut special education? Reduce the number of counselors? Should we cut language programs? How about cutting library hours? Perhaps reducing acquisitions at the library? Cut park district summer programs? End senior services assistance programs? Reduce the public safety programs?
We all agree taxes are too high. Let the governing bodies take their one time TIF payout. Then every governing body should meet to discuss a strategy for rational taxation for the whole village. Meanwhile, the state needs to reform the property tax system.
We need a unified strategic Oak Park tax plan that is created based on radical transparency and radical truth. All governing bodies seated as equals. All leaders seated as equals. All meetings public. All plans openly vetted. All citizens invited. Invite state Senator Harmon, and our state representatives to be there, too.
There has to be a fairer tax system.
Robert Milstein is an Oak Park resident and a former village trustee.