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Oak Park residents focus on soaring property taxes at public forum

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Staggering increases in property taxes have made it difficult to move in to Oak Park or to maintain “economic equality” there, Oak Park residents said during a public forum Saturday.

Others said a two-tiered property assessment system could motivate owners of vacant commercial parcels to sell or develop them. Another topic was the village’s tax increment financing districts, which residents said are draining local taxing bodies of revenue and forcing other taxpayers to make up the difference.

Village President Anan Abu-Taleb hosted the forum at Oak Park Public Library’s main branch.

“It’s impossible to reach economic equality because of the taxes,” said Jean Rappaport, a 22-year resident. “First, the schools need to exercise financial restraint. Second, we need to address the attraction of retail business to the village.”

Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, who answered questions with Abu-Taleb, said property taxes in Oak Park soared 91 percent, from $88 million in 2001 to $170 million last year, while inflation rose just 35 percent during the same period.

“For many folks, they can file appeals to their property taxes, but if you increase the levies by that much, you’re making it increasingly difficult for people to live in Oak Park,” ElSaffar said.

At the same time, Oak Park voters have approved several tax increases in local referendums during that time frame, he said.

“We like our services and facilities in Oak Park, but the costs add up,” ElSaffar said.

Abu-Taleb argued that village officials, residents and businesses must help change the image of Oak Park as unfriendly to business. The property tax burden is best addressed with economic development, government efficiency and continued collaboration among taxing agencies, he said.

“The people on the boards of all these taxing bodies are very good, and they keep these issues in mind as they make decisions,” Abu-Taleb said. “The time is right for these changes, and we are very lucky.”

Resident Mina Gerall suggested Oak Park push to implement a two-tiered property valuation system that would assess vacant properties at higher rates than developed or occupied properties.

“This would give the owners of the vacant properties an incentive to do something with them,” Gerall said.

“I agree,” Abu-Taleb responded.

Resident Kathryn Jonas said the downtown and Madison street TIF districts are at least partially responsible for the massive increases in property taxes.

The village’s demolition of one retail building alone, which once generated $300,000 a year in property taxes, resulted in the loss of $3 million to local taxing bodies over a period of 10 years, Jonas said.

“The village bought and demolished many properties in the Madison TIF, and they are still vacant,” she said. “That is the opposite of what a TIF is supposed to do. The schools are not getting taxes, and we’re not getting the benefits.”

Abu-Taleb said TIF districts are necessary for Oak Park to compete with other area communities that use them to attract development.

“We have to borrow and increase our debt, or take advantage of these tools,” he said.

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