No, There Is No $500 ‘Police Tax’ In Park Forest

Gary Kopycinski

By Gary Kopycinski

Election season is upon us in Park Forest, and with election season comes truths and things that are not true. As a sitting Trustee, I have heard many things not-so-true tossed around town through the years, and consider it my responsibility to help set the record straight when possible. These not-so-true elements can take a life of their own, and it’s important to quash false rumors.

I think we all know why it is important to report on such matters, but let me offer one example that I considered especially disturbing. A few years ago, a group of people in town drew up and began circulating flyers to residents south of Sauk Trail in Park Forest, sharing the horrible and 100% false rumor that Park Forest was going to use eminent domain to seize properties and convert Sauk Trail into a commercial district. Several senior citizens called the Village very concerned that they would be losing their homes. Attempting to spread fear for political gain is offensive, especially when our senior residents are targeted.

I will use this space to set the record straight in the months ahead. Yes, I am running for re-election, so please consider that when you read, and I will include disclaimers stating such at the bottom of columns like this. However, as Editor and Publisher of eNews Park Forest, I have worked very hard to build the credibility of this publication and to dispel such rumors when they surface in town. Please examine what I write. Please test it. Please do your own research and let me know if I’m wrong so we can all help set the record straight.

The only remedy for a lie is veritas, truth.

So, here’s today’s false rumor. A volunteer for my campaign was standing outside a local business today gather signatures for my petitions. He reported that one man was about to sign when another man approached and told him that I was the one who initiated "the $500 police tax."

The volunteer was polite, telling me the man further commented on the "retirement tax," or words to that effect.

Here’s the truth: the Village of Park Forest and every other municipality in Illinois is obligated to fund pensions for police officers and firefighters. We don’t have a choice. Further, our mandator pension obligation has increased drastically since 9-11-2001, representing 23% of the overall levy for the current fiscal year.

Pension obligation
(Source: VOPF 2010-2011 Budget)

This is clearly a burden for our tax payers. The reasons for the increases are many, summarized here from the current budget:

Over the last decade, there have been many changes and benefit enhancements approved by the State legislature. These changes and increased benefits directly affect pension fund obligations and ultimately impact funding levels. A summary of some of the changes are:

  • Adopted legislation allows Police and Fire personnel to transfer service credit from other municipalities (late 1990’s).
    • For Fiscal 2003, a police officer transferred credit from University Park. In 2005, another officer transferred from Chicago Ridge. In 2009, two police officers transferred in from Chicago Heights and South Holland.
  • State legislation increased fire pension benefits (1999).
  • State legislature adopted similar pension increases as was passed for fire in 1999 for police pension funds (2001).
  • Surviving spouse’s pension distributions were increased to the retiree level, increasing the fire pension costs annually (2004).
  • Police Pension Board approved two duty disability pensions (2008).
  • The Village is now legislatively required to continue health insurance coverage for the "catastrophically" disabled firefighters and police officers and their families for life (2008).
  • A firefighter was granted a duty disability (2009).

To lower these pension rates, the Village of Park Forest needs State Legislators and Senators to act. The 2011 Legislative Agenda for Park Forest includes the following under Public Police Advocacy:

Public Employee Pension Plans – The Village of Park Forest urges that any legislation relating to municipal employee benefits, including pension benefits, allow for some levels of control by the employing local government (e.g., to be included in collective bargaining). Also, the Village encourages legislators to consider parity between the benefits conveyed through public safety pension plan and those offered to other municipal employees through IMRF.

The Village also includes a number of items under the heading Property Tax Reform, and I’m including that here in case any of our friends in Springfield are reading:

Correct the Property Tax Dilemma in Park Forest – The Village of Park Forest levies a set dollar amount for its annual tax levy. The community is seeking a change so that other taxing bodies adhere to a similar approach versus a percentage-based levy. Such an approach is that much more transparent in taxing bodies identifying an exact tax dollar need to carry out their operations.

Correct the Property Tax Delinquency Issue – Tax delinquent property owners currently have the ability to abandon a parcel of land after having not paid taxes for a long period of time while still reaping economic benefits during this time frame. The Village requests that legislation be considered which would force tax-delinquent property owners to pay their tax obligations without the ease or option of walking away from the property.

School Funding Reform – The Village of Park Forest continues to support the need for legislation to change the way schools are funded in Illinois by placing more burden on the state income tax and reducing reliance on the local property tax.

Sales Tax Revenue Sharing – With a changing opportunity for sales tax revenue among a number of communities that are not as well situated geographically as are others, and thus have less opportunity for commercial development, the Village of Park Forest favors legislation to provide for some form of sales tax revenue sharing; the Village’s position is that the larger portion of the local sales tax revenue should go to the community where the generating business is located, in order to accommodate infrastructure costs, etc., but that a significant portion likewise should be distributed to all municipalities based on population, such as is done with the motor fuel tax.

Sales Tax Increase for Municipalities – The Village of Park Forest favors a program to increase the state sales tax by one cent, with all new revenue distributed exclusively to municipalities based on population (perhaps with a portion statutorily designated for property tax reduction).

Less Intrusion on Local Revenues – The Village of Park Forest urges legislative controls over the amount of local municipal revenue that can be withheld by the State of Illinois (e.g. photo tax, utility tax collection fee, etc.). Also, ensure that ample legislative controls are in place so as to avoid currently-provided state services or programs from being curtailed and passed on as a local government obligation.

So, no, there is no "$500 Police Tax," but taxpayers in Park Forest and the rest of Illinois bear an undue burden for a number of reasons.

If you hear any more rumors, either throughout the campaign or after, please send them my way. I’ll do my best to find the truth.

The writer is a member of the Park Forest Board of Trustees and will be running for re-election to that board in the April 5, 2011 consolidated election.