Analysis, Commentary, Local, Opinion, Park Forest, Politics, Regional News

Let me say it once again. The problem is…

Commentary by John A. Ostenburg

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Area media have been reporting over the last several days regarding a Cook County study done of how various property tax exemptions in some communities of the South Suburbs are having more of a negative effect for some residents than a positive one.

What the article purports regarding the negative effect on the overall tax picture of exemptions as regards communities lacking in industrial and commercial property, i.e. Park Forest and Dixmoor as examples used in the article, is accurate. However, it must be noted that the article also points out that such a negative impact is not felt in Cook County communities with strong commercial and industrial bases. Although the article doesn’t make reference to it, the problem is caused by the two-tiered property tax-rate system uniquely present in Cook County. I have been preaching this for too many years now to count, but nobody seems to be listening! As I have said before, it all makes me feel, if a Biblical allusion might be employed, like “a voice crying in the desert!”

Current System Benefits Tax-rich Communities

The current system benefits the tax-rich communities by allowing them continually to levy lower amounts and still gain more in revenue. The lower rates likewise make it more attractive for even more industrial and commercial growth to occur within their confines. Meanwhile, the communities poor in commercial and industrial bases suffer even more because they need to keep their rates high – much, much higher than those tax-rich communities – in order to provide even basic local services. 

The intention of the two-tiered system is to provide less of a burden on homeowners, who pay at a lower rate, than on businesses that pay at the higher rate. However, in locales where the commercial-industrial base is low, obviously less business-related revenue is being generated, which just makes the burden on homeowners and the handful of businesses that much greater because they must make up the difference. And in the process, the whole situation allows the tax-strong locales to be increasingly more attractive for business development while the tax-weak ones are increasingly less attractive.

Tax exemptions do not cause high property taxes

What develops because of the various tax exemptions is NOT the cause of the high-property-tax situation in the Southland communities; rather it merely is a symptom. Because so many exemptions occur in regions with more moderately-priced housing, especially given the fact that the exemption process mostly is designed for the benefit of persons with lower to moderate incomes – e.g., older people and others on fixed incomes – the impact is even more significant than it might be elsewhere. It’s because the moderately priced housing is located in areas that have less commerce and industry, and because the Cook County differential already has created a burden on those homeowners that is disproportionately high. So it becomes, so-to-speak, a double whammy!

Cook County’s Formula for Disaster

Here’s the formula for the current disastrous situation: (1) the unique Cook County system forces communities without strong business and commercial bases to collect more from homeowners and from the small number of existing businesses than is the case elsewhere in the county; (2) the State of Illinois allows a number of exemptions to benefit some of those homeowners who have need but not others; (3) the two elements combine so that other homeowners and the limited number of businesses in the communities with poorer industrial-business bases suffer the highest burden of property taxes of anyone in Cook County proportionate to their assets and incomes.

The Solution: A Special District of Four Townships

Only one solution will begin to address this problem: create a special district in the region affected – I have proposed that it consist of the four townships of Bloom, Bremen, Rich and Thornton – where the property tax rate is the same for homeowners and for businesses, just as it is throughout the rest of Illinois. In the interim period while the balance is achieved through the more attractive landscape for gaining a more beneficial business-industrial base for the region, give special State assistance to municipalities of the special district, similar to what is done in providing disaster-relief to some communities when the need exists, in order to give homeowners some relief. Once a suitable balance is achieved, the County can develop a sliding scale to slowly increase the business-industrial rate and lower the homeowner rate until things are equal to what exists elsewhere in the Cook County. This is the only way, in my mind, that equity can be achieved, and it no doubt will take quite some time to level out, since it has been over a period of quite some time that the problem has developed.

I know that some will say that creating a policy that establishes a different process for four Cook County townships by contrast to all the others would cause a logistic nightmare and be costly beyond imagination. I would just remind those folks that we live in the Information Era! It is a time when programmers can learn from the slightest of information we post in the most obscure of Internet sites what might be our preferences in some regards, and then create programs to direct special pieces of information toward us relating to what we might want to buy, who we might want to vote for, etc. By comparison, what I suggest is the proverbial “piece of cake.”

This solution causes no negative impact on anyone

Please note that what I suggest in no way causes a negative impact on anyone; rather, it all is positive. No one loses anything, but those who currently have less are given the opportunity to gain more.  None of this is rocket science! But it does take fortitude and clear-sightedness on the part of decision-makers. Sadly, I have little confidence that those who are able to remedy this situation will listen to what I suggest now, given my status simply as aging private citizen, since they hadn’t been listening through 30 years while I was serving as a local and state elected official and saying the same thing. But maybe, just maybe, if I keep preaching long enough, the message will get through to someone!