In some ways local government is like the weather. Many people complain about it, but hardly anyone does anything about it. With the filing periods now closed for local elections upcoming in April, Wheaton voters face mixed options if they want to effect positive change. Three City Council seats are uncontested, and only one challenger has emerged for the Wheaton Park District board.
Some people feel that, like the weather, they also can’t do anything about local government, or “fight City Hall.” So they allow incumbents to go unchallenged. When that happens, the incumbents view voter non-participation as positive, an endorsement of the status quo.
Even in contested races, based on past experience, candidates may win with the support of only a very small minority of the community – sometimes as little as 10%. Most years, 75 to 80% of voters don’t even bother to cast ballots in local races. What does your voting record say about you? If you’re not happy with anything going on at the local level – your property tax bill, for example – have you done anything about it? Will you?
What I did about it was to run for school board. Though I did not get elected, I am proud of my accomplishments in holding School District 200 to greater scrutiny and accountability, which has sparked public involvement far beyond my own efforts. Since I began my work, there have been no uncontested school board elections. This April, voters will have a wealth of choices; a total of nine people have filed for four board seats.
But people have are other options too. Communities are always in competition with one another. Wheaton is a great place to live. Still, if residents and businesses perceive a better overall quality of life elsewhere, they can move to a community with a more hospitable "climate”.
Taxes certainly matter when it comes to population growth. According to the Tax Foundation and Census Bureau data, the seven states with no income tax are all among the top 15 states in percentage population growth. Lest we carry the weather analogy too far, it’s not just the Sun Belt states that benefit. Income tax free South Dakota, Alaska and Washington state are all among the fastest-growing. Illinois, which in 2011 increased the income tax by 67%, ranks 43rd of the 50 states in growth.
In theory, higher tax levels might allow for better government services, but apparently our higher taxes aren’t being spent in a way that persuades more people to move to Illinois – or, perhaps, to Wheaton.
One example of those “government services” would be the perks given by District 200 to former Superintendent Gary Catalani. Years after he “retired” (three superintendents ago), District 200 taxpayers are still footing the bill for his and his wife’s health insurance premiums, while he collects an annual pension of $237,195 (plus 3% cost of living increase every year). Has this improved your quality of life?
When I moved to Wheaton in 2000, the population was 55,416. By 2010, it had fallen to 52,894, a loss of 2,522 people, or 4.6%. In 2000 there were four new car dealerships; now there are none. Meanwhile the City continues to raise property taxes. It imposed, then doubled, a “home rule” sales tax, and boosted utility taxes too. Is Wheaton better off with the higher taxes?
It's not just the operational spending but, like at the state and national level, excessive borrowing that adds to the tax burden. Over the past 10 years, the DuPage County Clerk’s figures show that the Wheaton Park District’s annual property tax collections just for debt payments have increased by 81%. For District 200, the total increase was 104%, and not just because of referenda. District 200’s annual debt payments for borrowing that was NOT approved by voters have soared by 236%! This is significant because these debt payments aren't subject to tax caps.
Being “taxed enough already,” I have chosen to stop paying for all this. After 12 years in Wheaton, we voted with our feet, sold our house this fall and moved to eastern DuPage county. Our new home, which cost roughly the same amount, has a tax bill only 60% of what we were paying in Wheaton. The local school board has a reform majority, and our community wisely voted to reject “home rule” in November. Perhaps some of you will work to lower your tax bills by repealing home rule in Wheaton, too.
We enjoyed our time in Wheaton, and will keep in touch with the many friends we made. For our former neighbors, there are some elected officials who do represent your best interests, and some candidates who are worthy of your support in April. And take heart; just eight more years to go until your health insurance liability for the former superintendent will be paid off!
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