Park Board Bites Dog!


For close to a century “man bites dog” has been the tongue-in-cheek benchmark for a newsworthy story.

That’s not quite what occurred at last Thursday (Dec. 4) night’s Park Ridge Park District Board meeting.  But it came pretty darn close.

The Park Board, by a vote of 5 (Rick Biagi, Dick Brandt, Jim O’Brien, Mary Wynn Ryan and Mel Thillens) to 2 (Joan Bende and Jim Phillips), REVERSED its 4 (Bende, Brandt, Phillips and Ryan) to 2 (Biagi and O’Brien, Thillens absent) vote for a 1.50% tax levy increase at its November 20 meeting.

Yes, you’re reading that right.  A local taxing body reversed field and CUT a previously-approved tax levy increase.

On a motion by previously-MIA Board president Thillens, Brandt and Ryan flipped positions from two weeks ago and joined the Biagi/O’Brien/Thillens team.

Brandt didn’t explain his change of mind.  But Ryan – an unabashed “the bigger the government the better” fan who hasn’t seen many, if any, tax increases she couldn’t salute or applaud – read from a prepared statement to explain her epiphany from a “yes” to “no.”

Ryan claimed to be concerned about this levy increase being “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”  In getting to that point she first kind-of-blamed the City for raising its tax levy by 22%, even though that increase was public knowledge prior to her earlier “yes” vote.  Then she also kind-of-blamed the $4 million (over 4 years) Library referendum tax increase, without mentioning that she was instrumental in helping pass it.  She even cited the tax increase from the $13.2 million 2013 Youth Campus Park referendum, also without mentioning her wholehearted support for its passage. But she barely touched on the 3-month-per year, $8 million ($7 million of long-term debt) Centennial water park that she also heartily endorsed.

Such epiphanies are fairly common for tax-borrow-and-spenders as they enter re-election mode and feel the need to re-invent themselves as fiscal neo-cons in the months before election day (April 7, 2015), when voters might actually start paying attention.

Before Ryan announced her epiphany, however, Philips mounted a spirited defense of the levy increase, focusing on the principle of “use it or lose it” (“UIOLI”) – a kind of redheaded step child of the tax cap law.

When the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (“PTELL,” commonly referred to as the “tax caps”) to protect homeowners from excessive property tax hits, it incorporated a maximum annual levy increase of the lower of 5% or the Consumer Price Index (“CPI”); and it built in an exemption for adding new growth or construction to a taxing body’s tax base.  The taxing body can capture additional property tax revenue generated by any new property (e.g., when a $300K home is torn down and replaced by a $1 million McMansion), but it must levy for that new growth – and make it part of the tax base – the very first year that new growth comes onto the tax role.

If the new growth and CPI are not captured in any given year, the caps prevent any future levy for that new property or to make up for that year’s forgone CPI; i.e., if you don’t “use” it – by levying for it – you “lose” it forever.

Call that Exhibit No. 861 for why Illinois government is so broken it very well may not be fixable: even things called “tax caps” are designed to enable and even compel higher tax levies.

Philips’ UIOLI argument iterated and reiterated how a failure to capture new growth and that 1.50% in this year’s levy would, with compounding, have a long-term adverse effect on the District’s ability to tax its residents.  He also noted how inflation has made what could be purchased for $1.00 back in 1994 into a $1.60 expense today.

And it looks like he’s right!  As far as it goes.

But basing taxing decisions on keeping pace with inflation is a lot like chasing your tail – except that, with inflation, somebody else controls the pace at which your tail moves.  Moreover, the higher Park Ridge property taxes climb, the less of a “bargain” (or even a “good investment”) Park Ridge homes tend to appear.

That didn’t seem to faze Philips, who noted with clear displeasure (joined in by Ryan) that the District’s property taxes have already been reduced to the point where they have been exceeded by the District’s user-fee revenue.

Hallelujah!  Can we get an “Amen”?

We have always advocated for the taxpayers footing the bill for “assets.”  In the Park District’s case, that means land/parks and facilities (e.g., parks, the Community Center, Ice Rink, pools, etc.).  The value of these kinds of hard “assets” can actually be appraised, and the facilities can even be valued as “going concern” operations.  Their value to the community, therefore, can be measured and readily allocated to the community; and, therefore, in fractional interests to each piece of taxable property.

When it comes to the costs of operating those “assets,” however, we believe those should be allocated to the fullest extent possible to their users through memberships, program fees and user fees.  Once the taxpayers pay for the basic costs of keeping those “assets” operational, those who don’t use those “assets” shouldn’t have to help foot the bill for the extra costs attributed to such use.  And, frankly, if the quality of the programs or operations provide enough added value, we can think of no good reason for the District not to charge – for the taxpayers’ benefit, of course – a fair market price commensurate with that value add.

Whether Thillens’ leadership on this particular do-over represents a genuine epiphany of his own while out on the campaign trail during his recent state representative run, or just a temporary Ryan-style re-election ploy, remains to be seen.  That shuttered-from-September-through-May Centennial water park, with its constantly-running debt service, that Thillens and his compadres hung on the taxpayers – without a referendum – remains a big black mark on his report card.

But fair is fair.

Which is why we’re giving a big Watchdog bark-out to our long-time whipping boy for not only making the do-over motion, but also for expressing his justifiable pride in the District’s seeming ability to provide so much diverse and successful programming as to make it the District’s dominant revenue engine.  While we’re at it, we’ll also add a big Watchdog bark-out to one of our long-time whipping girls, District Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle, for being instrumental in managing to achieve such results.

And, finally, a big bark-out to the Park Board majority for, in this one relatively small way, trying to give Park Ridge’s beleaguered taxpayers a break.

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