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Waukegan aldermen stall on new tax levy

Updated: February 4, 2013 1:17AM

The Waukegan City Council has delayed action on approving a tax levy for the coming fiscal year, though there is sentiment expressed for some form of a property tax increase as aldermen face a Dec. 21 deadline to file a revenue plan with the county.

“I think there’s going to be some raise in the tax levy, in my mind. What number we’re going to land on, I don’t know,” said 7th Ward Ald. Lisa May during a half-hour debate Monday night over revenue options. May pointed out that recent deficits have been plugged in part by transferring money from the city’s water fund, saying “we have to stop stealing from our reserves. It’s like cashing in your 401(k).”

“We’re just trying to get on level ground here,” May added. “I don’t want my taxes to go up, either. We struggle. It’s really hard decisions, but at the same time, we have to make some decisions for our future — we have to have a rainy-day fund, we’ve got to stop stealing from the water fund.”

The city’s financial staff presented aldermen with two options at a committee-of-the-whole meeting last week.

The first, which has been on the table since October, features a 21 percent increase in the aggregate levy, which would equal a $240 hike in property taxes on a $150,000 home.

Finance Director Tina Smigielski said that plan would avoid a deficit and allow the city to meet such obligations as pension funds and salaries for recent grant-fueled additions to the police and fire ranks.

A second option formally presented to aldermen calls for a 10 percent aggregate levy increase, which would result in a $115 hike for the owner of a $150,000 home. In both cases, the city would be adding the cost of residential garbage collection to property tax rolls, a $5.7 million cost that currently is paid quarterly on water bills.

Eighth Ward Ald. William Valko discussed his recently proposed alternative of an 8 percent increase that, among other reductions, would freeze revenues for the Waukegan Public Library. He added that in discussing that option with residents, “everybody told me, ‘We can live with that.’”

“I cannot go along with a 21 percent increase,” Valko said. “It’s way too high. Is it justified? Probably. Do we need it? Probably. But the people of this city cannot afford a 21 percent increase on 17 percent of their tax bill.”

Valko added that since last year, when the tax levy went up 4.9 percent, “the people I’ve talked to — whether it was face to face, on the phone — I’ve told them, ‘It’s going up. It’s going up more than 4.9 percent. The reason being (because) we need policemen, we need firemen. It’s gotta go up.’”

Fourth Ward Ald. Harold Beadling discussed the state of the city’s deteriorating streets and vacant homes, saying “these are quality-of-life issues that we need to address, and we don’t have enough personnel to attend to these things. (That) doesn’t make for a very pretty town.”

Beadling eventually moved to pass the 21 percent increase, which would generate an aggregate levy of $23 million.

However, no other alderman seconded the motion, so it was not put up for a vote. First Ward Ald. Sam Cunningham, who expressed support for Valko’s approach, ended the discussion by asking that action on the tax levy be tabled.

Mayor Robert Sabonjian told aldermen action must be taken at the Dec. 17 council meeting or at a special session called before the filing deadline.

He added that he believes some form of increase will be needed to fund city services and address infrastructure concerns.

“Our ability to run on a starvation diet is at a limit. It’s at an end,” Sabonjian said. “We can’t keep running on a rag-tag budget. ... We’re not greedy, we don’t want to waste money, (but) we’re reaching the end of being able to serve the community.”

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