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Rick Nagel: Politics, Truth About City Tax Levy

News Analysis: Last night's "quick story" needs a few addenda, a clarification or two and a small dose of perspective.

There are at least two important points I didn't get to in the Monday night "Council Quick Story" on the city of Geneva's tax levy vote. One has to do with politics, the other with clarity about the tax impact.

We'll deal with the latter first.

Last night's story indicated that the difference between the two levy votes would amount to about $10 for the owner of a $300,000 home. That is true.

But it's valuable to understand that the city portion of your tax bill is going to go up by more than that—and it would go up regardless of which way aldermen voted Monday night. (Or the previous Monday night, when motions on the tax levy deadlocked twice.)

The hard truth is that the city's total Equalized Assessed Value is going down. And the state of Illinois is pulling back on the dollars it feeds to municipalities for their share of various taxes, including for example motor fuel taxes.

And what that means for the average Jane or Joe property owner is that—in order to collect the tax levy in full, even one that's basically flat from the year before—your tax rate has to go up.

In this year's case, the city of Geneva's portion of your bill will go up from about 60 cents to about 64 cents per $100 assessed value. That 4-cent increase means, for the "average" $288,000 Geneva home, the city slice of your tax bill will increase by about $38.40, if my calculations are correct. (I'm sure someone will tell me if they're not.)

This will happen even though the City Council voted to accept the lower levy figure.

Just wanted to make sure that part was clear.

There's a lot more to the numbers, of course. The levy's quasi "freeze" did not include the debt service portion of the levy—aldermen didn't want to and probably couldn't touch that. And there's the interesting Catch 22 for all public bodies which needs to be fixes but probably never will be: If you don't up the levy, you never get that tax money back. Next year's levy will start with the base of the previous year.

Taking all those numbers into consideration, the vote on Monday night was in a lot of ways symbolic.

But that doesn't mean it was any less important.

From a political and philosophical standpoint or from a taxpayer-watchdog point of view, a couple of sea changes happened Monday night.

One is that aldermen did not simply accept the recommendation of city staff regarding the levy amount. They asked questions. They debated. They talked (individually we hope) amongst themselves. And several aldermen changed their minds—and their votes—from a previous Committee of the Whole meeting, in which Sam Hill was the lone "nay" in a 7-1 recommendation.

A voting block emerged Monday night. It was one that said, "We've got to do something different than what we've done before."

I don't think that's happened—or if it has, I don't think it's happened with an event as significant as the tax levy—in the year-plus I've been covering Geneva City Council meetings.

Monday's levy vote also was a sea change for the simple reason that—small as the amount might have been—it was a shift in philosophy. The decision wasn't enough to keep the city's share of your property tax bill and mine from going up next year. But it was a change of direction, and in the off-the-record opinion of one alderman, "a move in the right direction."

Bob McQuillan December 14, 2011 at 06:17 AM
Thanks for the update, I went to the City Council meeting after the school board meeting but everything was "signed, sealed & delivered" by the time I arrived. I agree it is a move in the right direction but everyone needs to realize that in order for this to take effect on a long-term basis, very difficult decisions will need to be made about services, salaries & benefits, and other city expenses. Personally, I think the city has done a good job recognizing the economic downturn and has been proactive over the last three years. The community needs to do two things to make this shift in philosophy permanent: 1. Do research about local candidates and VOTE. When less than 20% of registered voters actually vote, a small minority controls what happens at every level. 2. Get involved and speak up at local meetings. Don't show up only when the topic directly affects you or your children. You can watch some local meetings via cable or websites. All local taxing bodies should be post their meetings somewhere because it doesn't cost that much. Residents can handle the truth, but they need to trust that elected officials understand what is happening and are representing the residents not their own interests and agenda.

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