Park Forest mayor says 'times have changed' in South Cook, and so should tax structure
Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg thinks the time has come for the people of his south suburban community to regain control of their own destiny with regard to property-tax rates.
“We have the highest property taxes around because the school districts here are impacted by the tax structure in Chicago,” Ostenburg told South Cook News. “There was a time when the south suburbs had plenty of industrial businesses across the area [but] those times have changed, and the taxes once generated by those businesses have now fallen on homeowners and the few remaining businesses that you see.”
With most of the money generated by the taxes going to schools, Ostenburg said part of the solution lies in changing the way schools are funded. He strongly suggests that rates be determined based on income taxes instead of property taxes.
“I know seniors whose incomes have gone down as they’ve retired, and now they are being forced to pay the highest property taxes they ever have,” he said. “Something about that needs to change.”
South Cook News recently reported that the south suburban areas of Park Forest, Markham, Riverdale and Harvey now pay the highest property taxes in the Chicagoland area. A recent analysis of the second half of 2018 by Local Government Information Services (LGIS), which publishes South Cook News, uncovered that of 331 local suburbs, Park Forest had the highest effective property tax rate over that time at 7.51 percent on a home priced at $45,000 – more than three times the state median average of 2.31 percent, according to WalletHub.com.
For Park Forest, which once attracted national headlines for its appeal to a struggling middle-class, the fallout has been what one might expect. The community's population has shrunk by roughly a third in recent years, down to less than 22,000 total residents.
The area also holds the dubious distinction of having had the highest foreclosure rate during the mortgage crisis and has been slower to bounce back from that downturn than many other areas. Since 1980, average home prices in Park Forest have dropped by nearly 70 percent, plummeting from average values of upwards of $150,000 to the current average of just $45,000.
In all, of 49 south suburbs surveyed by LGIS, 42 have effective property tax rates higher than the local average, roughly 40 percent of them are at least 50-percent higher, and ten have rates twice as high.
Ostenburg, who after 20 years as mayor has announced he will not be seeking re-election, again points a finger toward Cook County policy as the source of many of the area’s problems. In a recent VillageofParkForest.com farewell message, he lamented how Cook County is the only county in the state where property taxes for business are computed at roughly twice the rate as for homeowners.
“To be fair, you have to look at the suburbs that have been hit the hardest by all that’s happened and think of how they can give them a fair playing field,” he told South Cook News. “Doing things like that may have worked back when, but not now as malls have closed and downtowns have shuttered around these parts.”
While still vowing to have a voice on local matters, Ostenburg added in his farewell message that he hopes the town’s new mayor will take an aggressive stance in pushing state lawmakers to address some of the tax-structure issues he and other area leaders have been raising.
“Let’s pray that together in the days ahead we can force some changes so the playing field throughout Cook County – not just in downtown Chicago and in the western and northern suburbs – is level for all,” he wrote.