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Our view: Library tax giveback a small victory

Visitors walk up to the entrance of the DeKalb Public Library Wednesday Feb. 28.
Mark Busch -
Visitors walk up to the entrance of the DeKalb Public Library Wednesday Feb. 28. Mark Busch -

The decision of the DeKalb Public Library Board Wednesday to rebate about $1 million in property tax collections and reduce its tax rate was a symbolic victory for taxpayers, and a sign of how times are changing in DeKalb County and around Illinois.

Provided the state makes good on a promise to pay the library the rest of what it owes before Thursday, taxpayers will receive rebate checks from the library this year. The library’s property tax levy also will be reduced to its 2014 level.

The changes will not make much of a dent in DeKalb homeowners’ tax bills. No homeowner in Illinois will see any serious property tax relief until state and local politicians get serious about reducing the property taxes collected for local education.

But the rising public backlash against the high cost of owning property in Illinois at least gives us hope that change will come soon.

We can’t wait.

The reason the library board was under pressure to rebate money wasn’t because they couldn’t use it – they could. However, with the state set to pay what it owes, the library won’t need the money for the specific purpose for which it was collected.

In 2015, the board upped its tax levy to cover the costs of private bank loans. The library needed loans because the state, mired in a budget impasse, failed to deliver $4.6 million in promised grant funds for the library expansion project.

After a visit from state Comptroller Susanna Mendoza in January, the library received about $3.5 million. People began to ask why, if they now had most of the money they had borrowed, did the library need to collect all of the tax?

Tax cap rules provided reasons for caution about reducing the tax rate, officials have said, but a showdown was averted when library officials learned they soon would receive the remaining $1.1 million they were owed.

The library board then agreed use the money to repay the loans, return any state money left over to the taxpayers in the form of a rebate and reduce its tax levy to the 2014 level.

This wouldn’t have happened without the attention paid this issue by residents, reporters, and the city’s political leaders, including Mayor Jerry Smith.

The excess tax collections definitely could have been used for other needs, including other debt repayment, which was suggested by at least one board member Wednesday.

We expect to see more public involvement in property tax matters.

Residents are getting fed up. Soon, the low-hanging fruit and small victories all will be won, and people will realize that nibbling around the edges of the property tax problem is not solving it. To take a real bite out of the problem, we’ll have to change how we fund public schools and how much we pay for them.

In the meantime, local government leaders and state politicians in Springfield should take note: Taxpayers are starting to demand more power over who taxes them, how much and what they receive in return.

Local people should have more direct influence over this at the ballot box.

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