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Voters in four south suburban towns this month overwhelmingly said the county should create a tax-incentive program to attract business investment and spur economic development that would ease the property tax burden on homeowners.
The margin of support for the Nov. 6 advisory referendum in Hazel Crest, Midlothian, Richton Park and Thornton was startling. According to election results certified this week, nearly 97 percent of voters supported the measure.
“Generally on ballot initiatives, 60 percent or more of the vote is considered a landslide,” Reinbold said. “When it’s over 90 percent, I call that an avalanche.”
More than 14,000 people in the four towns voted in favor of the question. About 500 people voted against it.
Reinbold believes the results are among the widest margins ever recorded for a referendum question in Cook County history.
Yet, it would seem improper to characterize the outcome as a victory. The referendum was nonbinding. The results do not require any official in Cook County government to take any action.
At best, the votes provide evidence of widespread community support for a tax-incentive program. Southland residents sent a message to elected county commissioners who represent them.
“Help us,” voters seemed to say. “We’re squeezed by high property taxes and afraid of losing our homes. Please do something.”
County board members should heed the calls for help. Reinbold and other south suburban leaders want commissioners to know they’ll keep asking them to address the issue every chance they get. There’s too much at stake, and they have no other choice.
High taxes are causing some residents to lose their homes to foreclosure. Others residents are selling their homes and getting out while they can.
Businesses can pack up and leave, too. Manufacturers, logistics companies, retailers and others can move to Will County or northwest Indiana, where tax rates are lower and the cost of doing business is more reasonable.
But a community cannot leave. A town cannot load up all its homes, schools, parks, streets, churches, businesses and everything else and move it a few miles down the road, outside of Cook County. A community has to stay and fight for something to be done about high property taxes.
Southland municipal leaders universally understand that economic development is the best weapon in the fight against high taxes. If towns can attract new business investment, additional revenue from commercial and industrial properties will lessen the tax burden on homeowners.
Companies large and small constantly consider growth opportunities in the region. The area has fantastic interstate highway access and a well-educated workforce. Business investors see tremendous potential, but when they crunch the numbers for proposed projects they can’t make it work a lot of the time.
Costs are simply too high. Property taxes, high prices for construction labor and other factors consume a project’s potential profit. Companies cannot build, expand or renovate facilities in south Cook without some type of government assistance to lower costs.
Cook County has offered tax-incentive programs since the 1970s. The programs have worked well for many years. The Class 8 incentive, for example, assesses commercial and industrial properties at 10 percent for 10 years instead of the standard 25 percent.
Business owners saved a lot of money in taxes, but they still paid property taxes on new investments. They generated new revenues for schools and other services, plus they created jobs for people who live in the south suburbs.
“But in March 2018, the Cook County Board of Commissioners ratified an amendment to the Property Tax Incentive Program to require private developers to pay prevailing wages and benefits and hire apprentices in order to take advantage of the property-tax incentive programs,” the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association and the four villages said in a fact sheet about the Nov. 6 referendum question.
The new requirements took effect Sept. 1 and significantly increased construction costs for new commercial projects. There was a rush to file applications for incentives before September. Since then, however, municipal leaders say requests to build or expand businesses in their towns have dried up.
“We’ve seen applications drop dramatically,” Reinbold said.
The tax-incentive program was a good tool that gave Southland towns a fighting chance to lure businesses that are vital to a community’s survival. Then the county board, by an 11-5 vote, wrecked the incentive program with the prevailing-wage requirement.
Republican commissioners, including Sean Morrison of Palos Park, voted against the prevailing wage requirements. One Democrat joined them: John Daley of Chicago. They listened to south suburban municipal leaders who said the prevailing-wage requirements were a bad idea.
Three Democratic commissioners who represent the south suburbs voted for the prevailing-wage requirements, which trade unions supported. Unions also donated substantial funds to the commissioners’ election campaigns.
The commissioners were Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims and Ed Moody of the 4th, 5th and 6th districts, respectively. Moody did not run to keep his seat. Donna Miller of Lynwood won the 6th District Democratic primary in March, was unopposed Nov. 6 and will soon be seated on the county board.
I called and emailed Sims and Moore Wednesday and Thursday and left messages requesting their reactions to this month’s referendum results on the tax-incentive program. I did not receive responses by mid-afternoon Thursday. Efforts to connect with Miller Thursday were unsuccessful.
South suburban constituents sent county commissioners a clear message this month: Voting for the prevailing wage requirements was a mistake. Like the county’s ill-fated tax on sweetened beverages, these new requirements should be rolled back. Or, the county needs to come up with another tax-incentive program that offers significant cost savings to attract new business investment.
Without new commercial and industrial developments, high property taxes threaten the survival of Southland communities.
- Ted Slowik, Daily Southtown