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updated: 3/4/2014 11:33 AM

Long Grove's proposed property tax facing bumpy road

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  • Long Grove officials want to charge the first property tax in the village's history to pay for repairs to deteriorating roads.

       Long Grove officials want to charge the first property tax in the village's history to pay for repairs to deteriorating roads.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer, 2013

  • How to pay for crumbling roads in Long Grove like Mardan Drive, just north of Route 53, has become a thorny election issue.

       How to pay for crumbling roads in Long Grove like Mardan Drive, just north of Route 53, has become a thorny election issue.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer, 2013

 
 

In charming Long Grove, "big government" are dirty words.

The village was founded in the late 1950s on several guiding principles, including to resist property taxes and preserve its rural roots.

Only four full-time employees run the village. Nearly two thirds of its 8,000 residents live on privately funded roads where they're responsible for snow plowing and repairs.

It's a place that prides itself on a strawberry festival just as much as a spirit of self-reliance.

"It's all just been designed so that we are all self-sufficient," said Marcia Marshall, who's lived in Long Grove for more than three decades.

But the community now finds itself in a unique position: It doesn't have enough revenue to pay for deteriorating roads, leaders say.

Trustees have decided to bite the bullet and seek voter approval March 18 to charge the first property tax in the village's nearly 60-year-old history. The village's share would represent less than 1 percent of a $20,000-plus bill the average homeowner pays each year in property taxes, mostly toward schools.

For residents against the measure, a village tax challenges long-held policies and the original vision of Long Grove.

"It's a hot button for everyone in the community, but it's a much bigger picture than just the roads," said Marshall, who heads the opposition group Long Grove United.

Most recognize the declining condition of the roads. But the village's proposal could set a precedent of turning to taxation to solve problems that crop up, says a former plan commissioner.

"It's a slippery slope," Lisa Schultz Phillips said.

"It's not about the number."

The tax dollars would be earmarked for the most-used thoroughfares, officials say, but even that plan has proved contentious. It's touched off resentment among homeowners who already dig into their wallets for private roads and oppose taxes supporting streets that carry local traffic through subdivisions.

"The word 'fairness' comes up all the time," said Sharon Fine, who heads a group of downtown businesses.

The issue of what to do with the roads has simmered for decades.

Long Grove has long relied on fees from homebuilding permits and sales taxes to bankroll the roadwork it could afford. In the heyday of home construction, the village raked in more than $1 million in permit fees in 2005. After the housing market crash, the funds dried up to zero.

Now, although the fees have rebounded, the village is nearly built out. And it's saddled with a $1.7 million gap between what's available and what's recommended for roads, officials say.

"It worked for a while, but the gravy train has ended here," Village President Angie Underwood said.

Officials are reluctant to dip into the village's roughly $3.9 million in reserves. The funds are intended to protect the village from volatile revenues and unexpected emergencies.

If Long Grove does not address problem areas in the short term, streets will fall into steeper decline, raising liability concerns and threatening the village's image with visitors, Underwood said.

Some stretches have gone untouched for more than a decade, officials say. Last year, crews paved only about a mile of village road.

"If we repair the roads now before they're totally graveled, it's less expensive," Underwood said.

The average homeowner forks over $21,524 in property taxes. Of that, roughly $15,700 goes to Kildeer-Countryside District 96 and Stevenson High School District 125.

"It's another mortgage," Schultz Phillips said.

Opponents have no clear-cut solution, but they argue part of the answer lies in a revitalized downtown with more entertainment and retailers that spark sales taxes. But preservationists would have to loosen restrictions for what kind of businesses set up shop in town.

"It doesn't have to be antique shops anymore," Marshall said.

Others concede a property tax is a necessary evil that keeps the village from punting the costs of roads into the future.

"It's a reality we just all have to come to grips with," says Rachel Perkal, who owns a downtown art gallery with her husband. "If we love the community that we have elected to live in, I think we all have to take a deep breath and support our community."

Underwood acknowledged the measure before voters faces significant hurdles.

"Taxing the residents is the last thing we want to do," she said. "But we feel that we're forced to at this point because there's not another alternative."

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