Taxes front and center at Oak Park trustee debate

Eleven candidates lay out positions on affordability, transparency, development

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Election season kicked off this year with a candidate forum, hosted by the Oak Park-based advocacy group Suburban Unity Alliance, for those vying for Oak Park village trustee.

Eleven candidates are running for three open seats on the seven-member board of trustees in the election set for April 2 – only one candidate, James Taglia, is an incumbent.

Candidates laid out their positions on topics such as the rising tax burden, affordable housing, high-rise developments downtown and transparency in local government, among others.

The eleven candidates are: Tim Thomas; Cory Wesley; Susan Buchanan; Bridgett Baron; Thomas Gary; James "Jim" Taglia; Joshua Klayman; Graham Brisben; James Thompson; Christian Harris; and Arti Walker-Peddakotla.

 

Taxes

On the question of how candidates would address the rising tax burden and work to keep middle-class families in Oak Park, candidates largely pointed to the tax burden imposed by the District 200 and 97 school systems, which make up about 70 percent of the property tax burden in the village, compared to the village's 17 percent.

Wesley said he often hears from residents that there needs to be more intergovernmental cooperation between the various taxing bodies in order to hold the line on spending. He said the village needs to "make sure we're cooperating with the schools to keep that number down."

Thompson argued for aggressively looking for new revenue in Oak Park to help ease the tax burden. "We need to enhance the quality of life to such an extent that people will say, 'I want to live here even if I do have to pay high taxes,'" he said.

Harris, who currently serves on the Oak Park Library Board, said he believes the various taxing bodies "work in our own silos" and the village board is in a unique position to take a leadership role on spending. "What (the board) can do is create a referenda schedule as well as a capital improvement schedule," he said.

Brisben, a District 97 board member from 2013 to 2017, said the village should establish a citizen financial oversight committee that looks at the village's overall tax burden, also noting that the village needs to "strengthen the commercial portion of the tax base so residents don't feel the pain as sharply as we do."

Klayman said his focus would be holding the village's tax levy growth to 2 percent annually and eventually working that percentage down to zero. The board also must ask the question of who do increases in taxes help. "Does it help the people that it needs to help?" he asked.

 

New business

Candidates also were asked how they would help retain existing businesses in Oak Park and attract new ones to help spread out the tax base – currently a disproportionate percentage of the tax burden falls on residential property owners in the village because of a shortage of commercial activity.

Buchanan said she would seek more input from local businesses to find out what would help them stay in Oak Park. She also supports the village board providing greater support to the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.

Baron said she would work to keep spending under control in order to help relieve the tax burden on businesses. "The bigger question is how do you get tax relief to people?" she asked. She added that every time new revenues are found in the village the taxing bodies see it as "a new pile of money to spend."

Harris said he would work to support local businesses and wants to see a 10 percent increase in sales tax revenue over the next two to four years.

 

Affordable housing

Candidates were overwhelmingly in support of an inclusionary zoning ordinance (IZO), which would require developers to make a percentage of their units affordable or contribute financially to an affordable housing fund set up by the village.

Walker-Peddakotla said she favors 20 percent of new units be affordable or developers must contribute $100,000 to the fund per unit. "Another thing we have to do is support rent control," she said.

Gary, who supports establishing an IZO, said the current way of "extracting" funds from developers in an ad hoc fashion – the village currently negotiates the terms of affordable housing directly with developers behind closed doors – "isn't working for the developers or the village or taxpayers."

"Everybody is left in the dark wondering what are the rules of the game before we even start," he said.

Thomas said he supports affordable housing and inclusionary zoning, calling it a social justice issue. "If the unit costs $200,000 and (the developer doesn't) want it in this building, then I want that to go into inclusionary zoning … not a small portion of that," he said, adding that the village "can make that happen, but we have to be intentional about it."

Wesley said he supports affordable housing "but more importantly I support housing affordability."

"I support longtime homeowners near retirement age not being taxed out of their homes," he said. He added that "if an inclusionary housing ordinance helps with that, then I'm all for it, but that's where my priorities lie."

 

Transparency and the village clerk

Candidates were also asked what they would do to improve transparency in the village government and what role the elected village clerk should play in terms of the recent change that removed the clerk as the head officer for public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act in late December.

Thomas said the clerk's responsibility as head FOIA officer should be reinstated, and other responsibilities that have been stripped from the clerk's office in recent years should be restored.

Taglia said he values the work of the village clerk but stopped short of supporting reinstating her position as lead FOIA officer. "We are going to have a full public discussion and that, to me, should have happened sooner," he said, adding, "It's never too late to change things."

Walker-Peddakotla said the change was not communicated properly to the public. The change, which shifted the responsibility from the clerk's office to the village attorney's office, took place a few days before the Christmas holiday break and was not discussed publicly by the board of trustees.

Thompson said he did not see a problem with transparency in village government, noting that there is "so much information on the village website it's like drinking from a firehose when you try to educate yourself." Thompson said he did have an issue with the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization paid by the village to attract and retain business development in Oak Park. The organization has been criticized for years for holding meetings in private and being immune from FOIA requests.

Thompson also supported reinstating the duties of the village clerk that have been taken away over the past decade.

Gary said he believes the village has not done enough to encourage citizen involvement, suggesting that the village begin using apps that make it easier to understand cumbersome documents like the village budget and navigate the village website.

Harris similarly said that it's not enough to put information on the village website. "You need to teach people how to use the information," he said.

Brisben also noted that there is a transparency gap around development in the village. The village should better contextualize information it provides to the public to help educate the citizenry more effectively.

"The village does a good job giving you reams and reams of information, if you have the patience to get through it," he said.

* This article was updated to correct quotes by Jim Thompson that were inaccurately attributed to Tim Thomas.

tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Les Golden  

Posted: January 19th, 2019 7:12 AM

With increasing crime, fleeing businesses, school COLA for teachers, infrastructure decay, non-stop park district projects, imminent state grab of land for Ike extension, imminent transfer of $200 million pension liability to OP'ers, $300 million country club pool idiocy at OPRFHS, I believe there is only one long-term solution to local taxes and demographic decline (only the rich can afford to buy here). CAP the Ike. We start with OPRFHS returning a major portion of their illicit gains as seed money. Each taxing body, under new boards which will put power into the current feckless intergovt committees, whatever their names may be, will bite the bullet and put 10% annually into the fund. Once several hundred million is raised (1/10 x $200 million levy x 10 years = $200 million plus $50 million from OPRFHS = $250 million by 2030), Harmon and Danny Davis can put words into action and get state and fed matching money. That's one-half billion. Then we start with CAPPING at OP Ave. Move township, park, and village govt building there to create a Civic Center, freeing up the many acres of land in business districts for commercial development. That OP Ave/Ike CAP location, with free marketing as viewed from the Ike by hundreds of thousands of vehicles daily and with 20 min. access via the Blue Line to downtown, would be prime for the Oak Park hotel/banquet hall. Harmon could ask Pritzker to have his siblings put in a Hyatt, for example. Add a gambling casino, even!! It's election campaigning season. Let's see what the candidates for all the boards have to say about the long-term future of OP. If you have mediocre goals, the most you will ever achieve is mediocrity. This is NOT a mediocre goal. Or we can put in another new condo building and wait for the tax revenues as our Messiah.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 11:52 PM

So it is OK to freeze rents, without freezing costs for landlords? So there goes the needed maintenance on older buildings. How about freezing government spending instead please.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 5:19 PM

Oops. Or just Google "Townshend Revenue Act," if you're as nerdy as I am.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 5:18 PM

Building on @Tom Leeds comment, and re-reading my earlier reference to Mr. "Townshend" and his timeless song from the Who, I can't help but point out my own Freudian slip. The Townshend Revenue Act, for history buffs, "were actually a series of taxes and laws imposed upon the colonists. The first, the Townshend Revenue Act, placed a tax on glass, paint, oil, lead, paper, and tea. Other bills included in the Townshend Acts contributed to the colonists' angry reaction." See more from this website, US History.org, http://www.ushistory.org/us/9d.asp.

Tom Leeds  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 5:10 PM

I recommend we work closely with the new Governor to get more money trees planted in the village.

Robert Milstein  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 4:07 PM

My apologies for leaving words out but we cannot edited, can we.

Robert Milstein  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 4:05 PM

TIFs were questioned from 2003-2007. Elected in 2003 from the VCA, Our campaign ran on a platform opposing the TIFs and any extensions. That said the TIFs funds have historically not properly accounted for , and the VMA Board extended the DTOP 13 years when it should have ended on the original agreement date Board. The powers that be (VMA) disagreed and the program kept on building slush money. We ended up with Whiteco. I voted against the extension. In addition our entire team of candidates were profiled in an article in the Chicago Reader because we opposed the TIFs. These programs are misused as they were meant for blighted areas and they were not to pay for services that would normally be paid for from other funds. Ali El Saffar sought to question the TIF reports but he was mocked by others and ignored. TIF happy communities were sued by the school districts to gain a portion of any annual surplus . They had to sue to get any money! The result was that all taxing bodies got a portion of funds from the higher tax base. In fact, at one point in time, Dist 200 Board Members supported the TIF extension in return for the garage they wanted built. There are many backstories in Oak Park's storied TIF programs.

Al Berggren from Oak Park  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 2:39 PM

It's interesting that nobody questioned the TIF receipts and expenditures. Nobody ever does! This is the biggest slush fund in Oak Park - used to pay developers (who pocket the profits like the Target developer), buy properties at exhorbitant prices (like Car-X), cover environmental and structural problems (like Whiteco and Taxman properties}, all without any real accounting available to the public. These public funds are siphoned off of the taxes that should go to the schools so that Oak Park's officials can say that "Oak Park is Open for Business". If the new Board Members really want to look at taxes, they need to go back and break out how many TIF dollars were spent for what project and how many tax dollars is each project generating (or how much did each developer put in his pocket on the way out of town).

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 1:12 PM

All candidates for elected office should disclose how they intend to fund their campaigns and what limits,if any, they will self-impose on donations. Mr. Clark is correct regarding reporting requirements but it is important for voters to know prior to the election exactly who any of the individuals and corporate interests are that are bankrolling a campaign. A recent election for local school board found that one candidate benefited from a very sizable donation to his campaign from a private firm linked to a for-profit education corporation. That information was revealed only days prior to the election and after the individual was endorsed in the local press. The costs for newspaper ads, direct mailings, yard signs,etc.,. can be a considerable expense and voters should be aware if non-residents, lobbyists, PACs, developers, individuals or companies doing business with local agencies, unions or any special interest groups are donating funds or manpower support to a candidate. Anyone seeking public office who pledges transparency should also be willing to make a full and public disclosure of campaign revenues.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 11:00 AM

From their comments, I think it is safe to say none of the candidates have a dedicated plan to cut taxes.

Anthony Clark from Oak Park  

Posted: January 16th, 2019 8:41 AM

@Jim Coughlin all campaign donations should be public record. It was not discussed at our event, but all donations must legally be reported to provide greater transparency. You should be able to identify the funding sources of each candidate.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 7:52 PM

Did any candidate provide details on how they intend to finance their campaign? Will donations from developers be accepted? Is there any limit on the amount an individual contributes? Will the public learn prior to the election how much a candidate has received and the identity of all funding sources?

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 3:38 PM

Allowing developers to pay into a fund is just plain wrong. We've seen this in the past, with the downtown high rises paying into the fund. The fund is then used to build gross affordable buildings, always in South Oak Park. I will not vote for anyone that thinks this way of funding affordable housing is acceptable.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 3:25 PM

@Kitty, you should hold a class and invite all the candidates.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 2:53 PM

Alleviating the resident and business tax burdens should be priority number 1 for all candidates. Second should be retaining existing businesses and attracting new ones. The number of current retail/restaurant vacancies along Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue is striking.

Kitty Conklin  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 1:53 PM

I hope in the time remaining to the election that the VOP trustee candidates learn how the the financial operations of our village work. I am looking forward in future forums to hearing comments with substance.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: January 15th, 2019 1:34 PM

I try not to be too cynical, and realize there is only so much space to share details of what was said in this article, but the generalities from the candidates make me think of the great sage and British philosopher, Peter Townshend. "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss..."

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