Board of Education confronts resistance to new tax levies

Camille Grant, Staffer

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On Dec. 19, the Board of Education convened for a Truth in Taxation hearing, where residents of Oak Park and River Forest urged the Board of Education to alleviate taxpayer burden. 

The Board of Education must approve next year’s tax levy, the percentage of property tax claimed for a taxation body — in this case, OPRF. When the tax levy rises above 4.99 percent, the state of Illinois requires a Truth in Taxation hearing, allowing taxpayer opinions to be heard by board members before the levy’s approval.

This year’s levy looked especially unlike others of the past 40 years, because the tax increment finance (TIF) districts on Madison Street and downtown Oak Park expired.     

Despite their massive impact, many teenagers don’t know what a TIF district is. For scale, the Wednesday Journal wrote: “Downtown Oak Park, like it or not, is transformed because of the TIF.” 

To fund renovations and improvements, a municipality can establish a TIF district. A TIF district freezes the value of the buildings in the district for 20 to 35 years. They’re betting on the value of the buildings increasing, so the additional tax money collected can go to renovations.

The TIF district on Madison Street lasted for 23 years, and the downtown Oak Park district for 30 years. The two TIFs collected $233 million, which was spent financing local businesses and landscaping projects. 

Funds from the Madison Street district supported Robinson’s No. 1 grill and Sugar Beet Co-op, paved its red brick road, and built parking on the street. The downtown district funded nine projects across the downtown area, including the Holley Court Parking Garage and the development of Trader Joe’s. 

When both of these TIFs expired, there was still extra tax money not spent on renovations. Taxation bodies within the municipality, like OPRF, were entitled to money, but it was claimable only during the year of expiration. If OPRF chose not to claim it, then the money would return to taxpayers in the form of tax relief. 

To be specific: OPRF was entitled to an additional $3.3 million. Claiming the funds, however, would be a missed opportunity for taxpayer relief.

At the Truth in Taxation hearing, plenty of residents urged the Board to reconsider. 

“You have a duty to the people who pay for the schools,” said resident Kevin Peppard. The sentiment was expressed by numerous protesters, who decried the board’s lack of consideration for the average resident. 

“I understand exactly where they are coming from,” said Chief Financial Officer Cyndi Sidor. Though not an Oak Park resident, she pays taxes on her property in Cook County. Sidor thinks increased property taxes are a nationwide phenomenon not unique to Oak Park. 

On change.org, a petition called “YES To Oak Park Property Tax Relief” reached 1,516 signatories. “The TIF funds are not being taken because there is a NEED; they are being taken because they CAN be taken,” wrote organizer Kitty Conklin. 

“The one point I really want to stress is that the district has made a concerted effort to contain property taxes,” said Karin Sullivan, communications director. She notes that 2018 levy was less than the 2011 levy.

OPRF has chosen to abate back $1.7 million. Instead of collecting this money which the school is entitled to, they’ve reduced the portion of property tax that will be collected from taxpayers. Last year, OPRF abated back $1.5 million.

Nevertheless, the funds were claimed on the tax levy for next year. Sidor said this will mean a $167.98 increase on the property tax bill on a $400,000 house. 

The first phase of the $200 million Imagine Plan begins this year.