On August 25, 2015 I had to give a deposition in a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the Village. The mayor and manager sat there for my 6 hours of testimony, which surprisingly didn’t put them to sleep.
A point I raised a few times was that Oak Lawn had record sales tax revenues in 2012 and 2013 and that these would continue with development at 111th and Cicero. I half-wondered if that would filter back and we’d soon be hearing from the Village Board about record sales tax revenues.
Didn’t take long. At the last Board meeting, out came the discussion for the first time about these sales tax revenue increases.
Days later the Village sent out the Oak Lawn Matters publication which said that Oak Lawn, like other communities, saw retail sales drop in 2009 due to a fractured economy. Then, citing the 111th street development, the Village wrote that “the good news is that strategic planning and aggressive economic initiatives” that were taken have fueled a clear recovery and now a growth pattern.
Then why did this Board vote to eliminate the economic development department in 2013? Only 90 days into office this Board voted to eliminate the department that you now say “fueled our economic recovery and growth.”
You said back in 2013 that we didn’t have the money to fund that (one man) department. Now the same Board members are admitting that we had millions in new sales tax revenues in 2013.
Don’t misunderstand, I was glad to hear the comments about sales tax revenues and that it was from aggressive economic initiatives. It often takes years from the time of strategic planning and aggressive economic initiatives to realize new revenues. For example, Target and Portillo’s, great revenue producers, came from the hard work of my predecessors in office.
But in watching the video attached to the email I received from the Village with the newsletter, I had to wonder if the current Board members paused to listen to their own words – because what got us those improved sales tax numbers is the exact opposite of what they have been doing.
The largest and most aggressive economic development project in our history is at 111th Street. This Board has stopped the 111th street development plans. Nothing is being done to acquire critical property adjacent to the Wolfe-Wildlife nature area, property that was at the heart of the development vision.
The Village canceled the development at the Beatty Lumber site and lets it sit deteriorated and functioning as a used car lot. The Board canceled the development of the Village Green. The Village manager walked away from potential development of Southwest Highway.
This Board seems to have done everything it can to undue the strategic planning and aggressive economic development proposals we had tried to put in place to help improve the community.
The Board voted last June to raise utility taxes on homeowners by $2.5 million and said they had to do this as a last resort because we needed the money. But 100 days later the Board is talking about millions in new sales tax revenues. Then why were taxes raised? And why would you ever enact a tax that is shouldered entirely by Oak Lawn residents when you can get the same amount of money through taxes shared by non-residents?
For two years all we have heard is how terrible the finances are. That’s been the justification for everything from firing all the 911 workers, to raising our taxes by millions, to canceling family events like a Pumpkin Fest for children. But the truth is our sales tax revenues have increased steadily from 2011 and we have millions more in revenues.
Aggressive economic development initiatives bring positives to Oak Lawn. What happens when new stores, restaurants, or recreational opportunities open in Oak Lawn? People get excited because we are so starved for this. These things don’t happen if you sit around and wait. You have to go get them.
We sit with an incredible potential with the land immediately south of the Wolfe Wildlife Wetlands. Can you imagine a restaurant overlooking the wetlands and walking paths? Or perhaps new recreational areas? Be creative. The possibilities are endless. You want aggressive economic development? Pledge a portion of the sales tax revenues from the current development toward a bond and get that property now, because it will take years to develop and many would like to see nice things in Oak Lawn before we’re dead or have moved away after our home values have flattened due to that lack of successful initiatives.
I always believed that you plan now for a better tomorrow. That’s what creative and aggressive economic development initiatives can bring. Listen to your own words.
David M. Heilmann
(Editor’s Note: David Heilmann served as Oak Lawn’s Mayor from 2005 to 2013)