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Property Tax Hikes Take Center Stage At Alderman’s Town Hall Meeting

Harry-1Alderman Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, addressed a number of subjects at Thursday night’s town hall meeting. But the concept that he spent most of his time on and that garnered the most public comments was about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed property tax hikes.

The proposed hikes are part of the mayor’s outlined budget that will be voted on in the next two to three weeks.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel aims to raise $588 million over the next four years in a staggered property tax increase. The record property tax increase would help to pay for vastly underfunded public worker pension systems. The budget also seeks to institute a new fee for monthly garbage collecting, increase taxes on ride-sharing and taxi trips, impose the first-ever taxes on electronic cigarettes and increase building permit fees.

“I tried for a long time to bring taxes down for the community,” Osterman told an audience of roughly 25 people at Unity Lutheran Church, 1212 W. Balmoral Ave. “We are looking for alternate ways to raise money, and alternate ways within the city budget to cut costs.”

Emanuel seeks to significantly raise property taxes because of funding obligations to pay for the rise in municipal, labor, police and fire pension funds.

“(Those funds) are all set to become insolvent in the next 10-20 years,” Osterman said. “We have to put more money into these funds, and if we don’t start doing it now, in a big way, we aren’t going to be able to catch up.”

Osterman said the city is legally obligated to pay for the pensions. He said public workers like police and fire fighters took jobs making maybe less money, but the trade off is that they are promised good pensions.

“We have to pay the pensions,” he said. “If we do not pay these funds, we are going to become bankrupt. Chicago, on an annual basis, borrows money, and that relies on credit ratings, and if they lower our credit rating, they have to raise interest rates, and we pay more.”

Meanwhile, Osterman said he is concerned that a sizable tax increase will push people out of Edgewater. Emanuel’s budget director Alexandra Holt told the Tribune that commercial property owners, on average, could expect a 17 percent increase in tax bills by 2019 if everything in Emanuel’s budget proposal is approved as is.

It’s complicated. But basically, Emanuel’s budget proposal shifts more of the overall tax burden — $190 million — from homes to commercial properties, the Tribune said. The commercial properties would pay even more if Holt’s formula factors in how the rise in extra property taxes will benefit Chicago Public Schools, the Tribune found.

Commercial properties would be paying more for a proposed expanded homeowner’s exemption for those living within the city, too. Emanuel needs approval from Springfield to expand the homeowner’s exemptions. But basically, even if one group of taxpayers pays less, then another group of taxpayers will be obligated to pay more in the city’s convoluted property tax system, the Tribune said,

Additionally, renters wouldn’t be able to benefit from the proposed expanded homeowner’s exemption. Commercial property owners would have to raise the money to pay for the tax increases somehow. Most times, they do this by raising rents, and not every apartment dweller or small business owner in those buildings would be able to afford to pay more.

Osterman said it’s still unclear what the actual budget effects would be on most property tax appeals. Even if Springfield approves Emanuel’s proposal to revise the homeowner’s exemption, “it’s not clear what the bottom line will be regarding what people will pay for property tax.”

He added that he would like there to be an incentive for property owners to rent to small, mom-and-pop businesses over large chains. Among the reasons for this, Osterman said, is that local businesses usually help profits remain in the neighborhood.

The 48th Ward alderman said he is working to make Broadway more of a “Main Street” again. “We brought in a lot of calories,” he said, getting laughs from the audience regarding businesses like Giordano’s and Whole Foods. “What’s not shown here is all the small gyms.”

There has been a tension between larger gyms like LA Fitness and smaller gyms like Cheetah Gym, which recently had to close its Broadway location because it could not compete with corporate pricing.

Osterman said after the meeting that he understands the concern in helping Edgewater be attractive to small businesses and is working to attract more of the same. However, sometimes that can’t always be achieved, yet jobs are created anyway. During the town hall, he said the former Piser property, 5220 N. Broadway, has been turned into a Chipotle Mexican Grill and a PetSmart, for instance.

Regarding schools, the alderman said Nicholas Senn High School’s new interim principal, Mary Beck, is working to make some improvements at the campus. The former principal, Susan Lofton, was forced to resign due to allegations that she lowered the admission test scores of special education students who wanted to get into Senn’s special Magnet Fine and Performing Arts Program to weed them out of the school, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in July.

Osterman said Senn has a record enrollment this year and that efforts continue to help the school be a campus where everyone wants to send their children. He also mentioned the other Chicago Public Schools in the district as well as Northside Catholic Academy, saying he’s worked to bring those schools closer together.

“Great public schools in a city like ours keep a lot of families in this neighborhood,” he said. “When the school system fails and there aren’t any families in the neighborhood … people leave. We really look at how valuable it is to have our schools excelling.”

He also talked about local infrastructure, from the importance of trimming trees and shrubs, to bigger capital improvement projects to modernize the CTA Red Purple line at Bryn Mawr. He said he knows it’s frustrating when a city crew repaves a street and then the water department tears up the street a couple of weeks later to install a water main. Osterman said he would work to make those necessary projects by different city departments more synchronized.

Osterman said he will continue efforts to reduce crime and gun violence in Edgewater. These include minor improvements like more piggyback lighting to illuminate the sidewalks and the streets west of Broadway Avenue. It also means preserving and enhancing partnerships between business development groups and the police, and working to better connect the police with the community. Programs for young people like B.A.M. (Becoming A Man) are also essential, he said.

“We have to find ways to make Chicago safer,” Osterman said. “If we don’t start dealing with it earnestly, then it becomes like a death spiral.”

Osterman also fielded audience questions and concerns regarding the parks system and bike paths; traffic flow and traffic safety; the costs of garbage versus recycling; the possibility of having a dedicated bus lane during peak hours on Lake Shore Drive; and privatizing 311, a reporting system for city infrastructure complaints, to save money. (Osterman thinks 311 should remain as it is).

Here is a list of the dates, locations and times for three other upcoming town hall meetings:

• 6:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave.

• 6:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Somerset Place Apartments, 5009 N. Sheridan Road

• 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Emanuel Congregation, 5959 N. Sheridan Road


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