Park Forest Shares Ambitious Agenda with Legislators

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State Sen. Maggie Crotty, Toi Hutchinson, Rep. George Scully and Village Manager Tom Mick at the Legislative Breakfast on Saturday. (Photo: ENEWSPF)

Property taxes, pensions, revenue sharing, and more

Park Forest, IL–(ENEWSPF)– The Park Forest Village Board hosted a Legislative Breakfast on Saturday in Village Hall. State Representatives George Scully and Al Riley attended, as well as State Senator Maggie Crotty. Toi Hutchinson, candidate for appointment to the state senate seat being vacated by Congresswoman-elect Debbie Halvorson, also attended. Mayor Ostenburg invited Hutchinson to participate in the discussions.

The Village Board’s Legislative Committee recently convened to craft the Village’s Legislative Agenda for 2009. The Committee consisted of Mayor Ostenburg and Trustees Dillard, Kramer and McCray.

The agenda includes issues of concern for Park Forest on the local, regional and state levels. As part of the their discussion, the Committee discussed the possibility of crafting ‘shell’ language related to several agenda items that could then be forwarded to Park Forest-area legislators for attachment to other items of legislation that may arise over the course of 2009.

The discussion first focused on the first five issues on the Village of Park Forest 2009 Legislative Agenda, all relating to reducing local property taxes:

Correction of Property Tax Distribution Dilemma – The change in property tax distribution in the Village of Park Forest resulting from legislation enacted in 2002, that has resulted in multi-family residences paying proportionately less in property taxes than do the single-family residences, must be corrected.

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). Draft legislation will be crafted for presentation to a Park Forest-area legislator for sponsorship in Springfield.

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.).

Ostenburg stressed the need for the state to continue to consider revenue sharing, "There’s a pretty high amount of sales tax that is generated as a result of the conventions that come into the state, tourism that comes into the state, and things of that sort. We really think it’s a way to give local residents a tax advantage without necessarily increasing a heavy burden on local residents," Ostenburg said.

Rep. Scully recommended that village officials utilize the Legislative Research Unit when crafting legislation, pointing out that it was unnecessary for Park Forest to spend money on attorneys when there already are state resources to do legal work.

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State Rep. Al Riley, Trustees Rob McCray and Bonita Dillard listen to Mayor John Ostenburg. (Photo: ENEWSPF)

Rep. Al Riley agreed the idea of revenue sharing is a good idea, "From a purely political standpoint, we would have to gain a lot of consensus, and I think that’s why it’s important to try to get the IML up front as a proponent, because, let’s face it, [former House Bill on School Funding Reform] 750, now 2288, or whatever it will be next time — that whole issue of swapping property tax for some other kind of tax, be it income or sales in this case, is something that still does not play as well as I think that it should."

Village officials also touted successes of the Park Forest Health Department in requesting the following legislative initiative:

Local Health Programs – The Village of Park Forest urges legislation to foster an annual stipend for communities that operate health departments, thus easing health-related burdens for the state and neighboring communities. Draft legislation will be crafted for presentation to a Park Forest-area legislator for sponsorship in Springfield.

While the majority of those served by the Park Forest’s Health Department in 2007, the last year for which there are statistics, the department served residents from 58 communities. In response to a question by Sen. Maggie Crotty, officials pointed out that none of these 58 communities offer financial support for the Health Department.

"I was utterly amazed to find out how many kids who are mandated by school code that they have to have a physical examination, their parents have no wherewithal to get them physical examinations," Ostenburg told the legislators. "And the need is going to increase."

Ostenburg then turned to the increased pension costs for fire and police personnel in the Village of Park Forest. The village’s Legislative Agenda states the following objective:

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).

Village Manager Tom Mick told the legislators the village supports public safety personnel receiving pensions who have had catastrophic conditions that leave them unable to work, people who cannot go out and be gainfully employed. Mick suggested the state follow the federal standard, "Catastrophic means if you suffered a major injury and cannot go out and be gainfully employed, then you should get that benefit, and we want to see you’re taken care of and your family is taken care of."

Mick cited lesser conditions, someone leaving a public safety job for a lesser injury, but still able to find other employment. He gave general examples of a public safety employee suffering a knee injury, or an officer who suffers a hand injury and can no longer fire a gun. According to the village manager, there have been public safety employees who have been unable to continue their work with the Village of Park Forest, but then went on to find other full-time jobs. Under current state law, these former employees are still entitled to collect full pension benefits, even though they may find other jobs that pay more, and even though they might have even better insurance in their new positions.

"How is that fair to Park Forest taxpayers?" Mick asked. "So that is what we’re looking for first and foremost – redefine catastrophic."

"I would be a hypocrite as a unionist if I didn’t say this," Ostenburg added. "I really do believe that people are entitled to something if they have to give up their profession of choice. I don’t care what it is. If I have to give up my profession of choice as a teacher, or if I have to give up my profession of choice as an undertaker, if I have to give it up because of something that happened to me, and I have to choose another profession, yes, I am entitle to something. But am I entitled to something in perpetuity? Am I entitled to something that carries benefits for family members down the road, am I entitled to this? There should be some balance."

Village Manger Mick told the legislators he comes from a family of firefighters, "I can’t stress enough how much I respect the job that gets done." He stressed there must be a better approach. "Right now, the definition of catastrophic in Illinois is ‘any injury.’ Any injury that you suffer that’s not going to allow you to go back and do your job, that’s catastrophic, and I don’t think that’s right."

Other items on the Village of Park Forest 2009 Legislative Agenda include:

Home Rule – The Village of Park Forest supports legislation that any referendum to reverse home rule status, in order to pass, must be approved by no less than 60 percent of those persons casting votes in said referendum. Draft legislation will be crafted for presentation to a Park Forest-area legislator for sponsorship in Springfield.

Public Utilities – The Village of Park Forest urges legislation that would require public utility companies to enhance reliability in all areas that they service, and not only in areas where new development occurs.

Public Transportation – The Village of Park Forest supports legislation to provide financial incentives to collaborative efforts among local units of government that create public transportation systems to serve local residents.

Abraham Lincoln National Airport – The Village of Park Forest supports the development of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport, and further supports efforts to increase local ground transportation routes to ease congestion in the region.

SSMMA Legislative Agenda – Upon approval by the Village Board, Park Forest supports the legislative agenda of the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association.

The agenda will be formally adopted by the village board at the Monday, December 8 meeting.

Editor’s Note: The writer is a village trustee in Park Forest.