Friday, March 29, 2013

O'Halloran is a rare public official on local suburban government

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Brad O'Halloran is an unusual kind of suburban government official and public servant. Last September, it would have been so easy for him to have not said anything and gone along with the rest of the Orland Park Village Board and vote to approve the complicated financing for the controversial Ninety 7 Fifty project that is the cornerstone of much of the road development at 143rd Street and LaGrange Road.

But instead, O'Halloran stood up and took the side of taxpayers. Southtown columnist and my former newspaper editor Phil Kadner admitted he forgot that O'Halloran and done that, and so had I until it was just raised this past week in a scurilous political attack against O'Halloran by one of his opponents.

So many issues were at stake including the razing of a popular commercial strip mall and the forced relocation of several very popular retail shops and restaurants. There was a cafe there, The Plaza Cafe, that I really loved. They had a great Steak Skillet, one of the best in the Southwest suburbs. I never accepted the argument that people would pay top dollar to buy luxury condominiums in that area especially next to a renovated METRA station.

O'Halloran was attacked for challenging the development by Trustees Patricia Gira and Ed Schussler. Gira and Schussler were engaged in a very tight re-election context in 2011 in which they won but not with a majority of the vote. Clearly, one of the issues was voter concerns over the enormous funding being plowed into the Ninety 7 Fifty luxury development. Orland Park was loaning the developers $38 million, plus a $23 million tax incentive. Gira and Schussler argued that the development will return as much as $700,000 a year in taxes that will bring relief to taxpayers like you and me.

I thought the Schussler-Gira letter was vicious and unjustified. O'Halloran addressed the issue of the development and the negative impact on the taxpayers, Schussler and Gira attacked O'Halloran. Read the column.

I didn't buy that argument, especially after how we have seen the promise of a property tax rebate in exchange for an increase in the local sales tax get gutted and then reduced. Remember when the Village promised that in exchange for increasing the sales tax in Orland Park on retail sales, residents would get their local property taxes rebated to them. The concept was a great one. Raise the sales tax so outsiders who don't live in Orland Park would pay more so the village gets revenue and reduces our tax burden. AND THEN, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, rebate the local portion of property taxes (what taxpayers pay to Orland Park) to off-set what we would also be paying as a result of the sales tax hike.

It was a trade-off I supported way back in 1999. Here is what I wrote.

It was just reinstated but the rebate is about half of what it was when it was first promised and given. (I got $155.55 this year but years back I received over $225, and that's when the value of a dollar was more valuable. The $155.55 is really like about $85 in 1999 dollars).

But then, like a lot of government promises, the extra sales tax didn't help when the economy tanked and the first thing the village did was to eliminate the rebate program.

So why would we now believe Schussler and Gira that the revenue from the development will go to alleviating the tax burden on taxpayers? Might they not simply spend it on something else?

O'Halloran made a reasoned argument that was sensitive to taxpayers in Orland Park who have been misled, brutalized by the bad economy and confused about what benefits they do get.

It's not surprising that he is backed by Cook County Commissioner Liz Gorman who championed taxpayer rights in standing up to former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger Jr., repressive sales tax hike. Thanks to Gorman, the Stroger sales tax increase was repealed.

So when Gorman endorses O'Halloran, that means something to people who care about taxes and taxpayers.

(Forget about the nutjobs who are tied to the disgraced former Orland Fire Chief -- the one with the porno on his laptop -- who attack Gorman and lie at public meetings about the new board. Thanks to the new OFPD board (where I am a media consultant) the board has saved more than $4 million in the past three years. They're attacks against Gorman are politically motivated and they are proven liars, too!)

What counts is that O'Halloran stood up and question the financing deal. He like the development but didn't like the loan.

That's the kind of leader Orland Park needs, someone who is willing to think independently of the board when it is appropriate to challenge the board. Too many boards are rubber-stamps and do whatever is handed to them, regardless of what voters think. That's not to knock Mayor Dan McLaughlin. He has a lot of great ideas for Orland Park. But it doesn't hurt to occasionally have some dissension on a village board, especially when our taxes are at stake.

Brad O'Halloran deserves our vote of confidence for being open and honest about an issue that involves our tax dollars. $38 million is nothing to sneeze at.

-- Ray Hanania

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