For months I've been curious about the newly organized Citizens for Property Tax Relief (CPTR). To be honest, I winced when a member first asked me to sign one of the group's petitions, which demands "immediate and long-term property tax relief from all public taxing bodies."
I was asked on my way into a park district board meeting in late August. All of us were there to express our frustrations to the board about the pension spiking scandal that had just come to light. Yet, I hesitated to sign a petition that broadly asked both our school boards, our city council and the park board to simply "reduce our taxes" without a single specific request. I thought the statement itself was vague, simplistic and naively pointed out an obvious problem.
I didn't sign it, and I told the petitioner why. I had the same reaction the second time I was asked to sign it. In the back of my mind I started to wonder, "Are these guys legitimate, or are they just crazy?"
I once worked in the constituent service office of a state legislator. The hard-working staff in those offices, and the legislators themselves, tend to group all the phone calls they get into any number of categories. Inevitably, every office has its own branding mechanism for coding "those" types of calls: "crazy," "nut-ball," "anti-government," etc.
Those labels may be practical for sorting out the phone messages for a busy legislator, but they also do that lawmaker a disservice by enabling them to essentially ignore the real concerns of citizens – the same way that I nearly did to the CPTR members.
After talking with some of the members of CPTR, I've realized that its members need to be listened to, not dismissed like some angry cranks. The ones I have spoken with aren't anti-schools or anti-government; they just want better decisions to be made about public spending. We all should.
Despite my initial dismissals, CPTR hasn't gone away, and in the months since August it has organized further. The group insists that it is intentionally not telling our local boards where or how to cut. I now see that doing so makes a good point, not a vague one.
Members of CPTR tell our boards and city council, "You've got to attempt to reduce our property tax burden, because at the current levels it isn't possible for some in our community to stay here." I don't know how widespread that belief is, or if it is based in reality, but I did recently meet a senior couple who told me they were unable to sell their home partially because of Highland Park's extremely high property taxes.
One key point that a CPTR organizer mentioned struck a chord with me. Our local taxing bodies need to communicate better and collaborate more. Each of our two school districts, our city government, our park district and others should not each move to raise property taxes for their own priorities and do so as if they are operating in a vacuum. Each one of them impacts our property taxes, and multiple increases have compounding effects for all of us as taxpayers.
Earlier this year I wrote that Democrats and television talking heads ignored the Tea Party activists at their own peril. Many Democrats were hoping so badly that the Tea Party represented only gun-toting, Dixie flag waving extremists that they actually ignored the core issue represented by this surge of citizen activism: taxes.
All of the candidates for office in the upcoming election (myself included), and our other office holders would be wise to talk to some of the CPTR members and pay attention to what they represent.