High-rise developments, residential taxes, affordable housing and support for Oak Park-based businesses were all on the table at a candidate forum held Friday by the Business and Civic Council and the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.
Ten of the 11 candidates for Oak Park trustee met for the early morning forum to convince those in the business community that they'd be the best candidate for economic development in the village. Tim Thomas was not present at the event.
The election for three seats on the board is set for April 2.
The candidates began with a question about the recently passed inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires developers building in certain parts of Ok Park to make 10 percent of their units affordable to those making within 60 percent of the area median income.
The ordinance allows developers to pay money into an affordable housing fund in lieu of including units in the development but buying out each affordable unit will cost them $100,000 per apartment.
Candidate Joshua Klayman said the ordinance approved by the Oak Park Board of Trustees at its March 11 meeting is a "great first step" but added that it is a "work in progress." He emphasized that in-lieu fees should not result in segregating residences by class or race.
Klayman said he is concerned that the affordable housing fund will put affordable housing in one part of town and luxury high-rise developments in another part of town.
Candidate Susan Buchanan agreed that the ordinance is a first step, noting that it "looks like a relatively weak ordinance" compared to some areas in Chicago.
Buchanan said she supports the in-lieu aspect of the ordinance because it allows the village to assist those at the lower end of the economic scale. "The in-lieu fees will target those who aren't even able to afford to live in the luxury developments at the affordable rates," she said.
Trustee Jim Taglia, the only incumbent candidate, said he was proud to have voted in favor of the ordinance and said it would be good for Oak Park.
"The trick is we don't want to inhibit development; we want development to occur and at the same time we don't want to burden the taxpayer," he said.
Candidate Arti Walker-Peddakotla said she believes the ordinance was too weak and was passed "somewhat for political reasons."
"Ten percent and $100,000 is very weak when you look at other zoning ordinances that have been passed around the country, and I think that as a progressive community we can do better and we should do better," she said.
The ordinance should be amended to include condominiums and any other development anywhere in the village – the new ordinance applies mainly to areas around CTA train lines and most of Madison Street.
Candidates also laid out their positions on the findings of the ad hoc Taxing Bodies Efficiencies Task Force, established last year to find ways to reduce the tax burden in the village.
Candidate Graham Brisben said he believes the group got a lot of negative publicity by focusing too much on consolidation of taxing entities such as the village with the township.
Brisben said he strongly supports the establishment of a citizen financial oversight committee. "I like that idea because I served on the District 97 School Board from 2013 to 2017 and while there we made very effective use of our citizen-led financial oversight committee," he said, noting that the D97 committee made recommendations on district budgets and helped set other fiscal policies.
Candidate James Thompson said he agreed with the task force recommendation on holding the levy increase to no more than 3 percent annually, although it will be "quite a challenge," he added.
Thompson said he was struck by the fact that the task force recommended the 3 percent limit "and all of the taxing bodies, to my knowledge, have adhered to that recommendation." He said a future citizen financial oversight committee could wield "moral authority" over the various taxing bodies.
Candidate Cory Wesley said the levy increase of about 3 percent by the village this year "doesn't really count" because it was only achieved by spending down budget reserves. Wesley said the village board should adopt a new budgeting method that sets a limit that the village will not go over.
"Three percent currently exceeds the rate of inflation," he said, adding that the village has to increase its revenue base by encouraging entrepreneurs.
Taglia said the village should study adopting a new budgeting method such as priority-based budgeting. "We can do better on budgeting; we use line-item budgeting, and it's very difficult," he said.
He said the village should work to find efficiencies with other taxing bodies to help ease the burden on taxpayers.
"We have six different taxing bodies, and you can think of it as six different businesses with six CEOs and they run their own show," he said. "I'm not imagining that we eliminate any unit of government but, I would say, we have to study for all these efficiencies that clearly, anyone could see, could be there."
Asked by one of the moderators if any of the candidates would commit to working to eliminate Oak Park Township – rolling the taxing body into the village – or any other taxing entity, candidate Bridgett Baron said the village has no control over the township.
"What would have to happen is the trustees of the township would have to vote to do that and then it goes to referendum, so the village board doesn't have control over that at all," she said.
Trustees also discussed their thoughts on high-rise developments downtown or in other parts of the village.
Candidate Christian Harris said that residents must be involved from the beginning of the process on the topic of high-rise developments and any new tower "must fit in the context of the neighborhood." They all should have an affordable housing component as well, Harris said.
"I don't necessarily have a height limit because I think a development on North Avenue is going to be very different than one on Madison Street or on Lake Street," he said.
Candidate Thomas Gary said the village has to first decide, "What's the economic development plan?"
He said the village doesn't have an economic development plan "that speaks to both the blending of the community's desire to have its values expressed in how it will grow balanced with the needs of the market."
The village has taken projects on an ad hoc basis and not established a seamless thought out process for determining what development projects will look like, he said.
Answer Book 2019
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