Trouble in a Heartland Town Hall

Michael Blim

Suddenly the blue below turns to white and gray. We pass over the last of Lake Michigan and begin our descent into O’Hare, crisscrossing the orderly Chicago street grid, former corn farm townships since divided into smaller squares still, each comprising a family or two. Past the countless brown lawns, now covered with snow we go, skidding just a bit on the tarmac where little ice flows glow in the landing lights.

My parents’ house is about six miles from the airport. We may have passed above it, but one square looks like every other at a couple of thousand feet. I had tried in vain to find the expressway junctures, but like houses from above, every cloverleaf looks like every other too. Even a big, but rare patch of forest preserves, an odd and invented site on the prairie, doesn’t help me figure where we were or what I might have seen.

Best to have stuck with “white and gray.” Topography is destiny, if only for this trip to America’s self-proclaimed heartland.

Wherever I go, I read newspapers, as many as I can find and even in languages I don’t know. It’s true that the papers in unknown languages are like those infernal English crosswords, number and nameless, and for me thus clueless. Still I hope that I’ll pick up something, remembering even now my one great coup when marooned on an Adriatic island I deduced from Croatian that Sadam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Compulsions, it seems, require little reinforcement.

My father gets two papers at home, the Daily Herald, a town daily, and the Chicago Tribune. Giving my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease, he only has time now to glance at them, choosing the editorials and op-ed pages over the rest. To me, it’s like he eats the wrong part of the chicken. I have plenty of opinions and a low opinion of the opinions of others. I prefer the facts, such as they are.

Mount Prospect, Illinois, the suburban village where my parents and one of my brothers lives, and the place to which we moved in 1950 when its population, now 53,000 was under a thousand, has a civic budget crisis. The village plans to lay off 34 employees, 10% of its total. Going are police officers, fire fighters, and maintenance workers. Its four building inspectors are being let go, and their duties outsourced for a savings of $200,000 in a 2011 budget of $83 million.

It is this last fact – putting four full-time employees out of work to save $200,000 – that gave me pause and sent me digging. The $200,000 budget savings is the estimated difference between the cost of the four employees and the likely cost of outsourcing their work to private contractors. My question: is a savings of $200,000 out of a budget of $83 millions worth the livelihoods of four fulltime employees?

The village manager Michael Janonis told the Daily Herald (November 1, 2010) that Mount Prospect is “not a bloated bureaucracy … we are a very boots-on-the-ground type of operation.” In the war for fiscal rectitude, Village President Irvana Wilks suggests in light of the cuts, “what we have to do is redefine the way we do business, and this is kind of the beginning.”

Indeed. In an area that hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress since Abe Lincoln made the Republican Party respectable, retrenchment is not merely the path of least resistance, but pace Rahm Emmanuel, Ms. Wilks’ next-door neighbor, an opportunity. Some frills will be cut: “We may only have half the little white lights out at holiday time,” she says to the Daily Herald. But “if residents call 911, someone will still come to their house. It’s just being done in a different way.” (October 6, 2010)

Actually it is not different at all: the village is being run in the way the national Republicans envision running the country. Put another way, the village of Mount Prospect’s war for fiscal rectitude is just Republicanism gone to ground.

Mount Prospect has a few fewer reasons for running headlong for austerity. The town boasts a median household income of $68,000 (US national median household income is $50,000), and unemployment while high at 6.7% is two and a half percent less than the national and Illinois average. Thirty-five percent of the population has a bachelor's degree or better. But like so many parts of America, median home sale prices have plummeted, slumping almost 30% since their peak in 2007, from $350,000 to $250,000. Forty percent, or 285 out of 676 homes currently for sale, are in foreclosure. In short, these are bad times for Mount Prospect; though small comfort, broad swatches of America are in worse shape.

The problem, given American reliance on the property tax to fund local government and education, is declining home valuations increase annual tax bills without increasing the actual percentage tax levy. As the value of a town’s real estate goes down, each property owner needs to pay more tax to equal the revenue garnered the year past. Real estate transfer taxes are important to Illinois towns and cities: fewer sales and lower prices equal less revenue. Thus, if Mount Prospect in this case does not cut next year’s budget, it is effectively raising taxes without increasing its tax rates.

Cutting the budget and laying off 10% of its workforce is fiscally prudent, but is it good policy? Did the 2010 village budget, 7% more than the 2011 budget, really contain 7% waste? Or is the town putting 34 people out of work and also lowering the town quality of life? The public works chief reports that his department’s staffing will now return to levels last seen 27 years ago. Three full-time maintenance people will go, fire hydrants won’t be replaced, and public sidewalk and tree replacement costs will be shifted to homeowners. Three of the village’s 18 firefighters, 13 police officers, and five part-time school crossing guards will be laid off too.

This year, a household with a house valued at $250,000 (the median home price) paid $5000 in property taxes, which in Illinois includes levies for the schools, the library, the park district, the county, the township, the sanitary district, as well as for municipal services. The 2010 effective tax rate, then, is equal to 2% of the value of one’s home.

Is the levy really too much to bear for a better than average American quality of life? Go to the website of Mount Prospect Illinois 60056 and see what its citizens are getting for their money. For starters, they get a public library with half a million catalogued items and a million annual circulation, a panoply of services for the elderly and handicapped, and one of the best public schools systems in the state of Illinois and the nation at large.

I checked with another brother currently living in a New Jersey bedroom suburb of New York City. The taxes on a $250,000 home in his town would be $6500 a year, significantly higher than they would be for the same house in Mount Prospect but with decent services and fine schools too.

What then is too much? When are taxes “too high?” What can be cut without damaging a community’s quality of life? What is worth paying more for to keep? These are not easy questions, but the notion that government should undertake lay-offs and budget cuts so as to “share the pain” expresses a very perverse notion of the common good. Governments provide essential public goods that no one else provides.

I hope people will start carefully assessing the value of the community assets they have and the quality of life they share, and not begin dismantling their well being one budget at a time. Governments can contribute just as much to the down drafts of recessions as businesses. Their lay-offs are no less costly to local economies than those of firms. Unemployment, public or private, is equally painful to the unemployed and their dependents.

But as local governments contribute to the quality of life in ways that businesses do not and cannot, their constancy is more necessary now than ever. Increasing a levy in bad times can be a responsible and necessary act, and that doing so is possible or even better seems to slip our minds completely.

America’s founders created a system of government that requires citizen vigilance and action at every level. One good deed at one level of government can be undone at another, but it is also true that one good deed can be done at one level even if despair stalks every other level.

Struggle for your quality of life in your Mount Prospect. Maybe the wrecking crew about to take power in Washington can be beat back a little bit after all, if not on Pennsylvania Avenue, then on Main Street.