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Crestwood Sends Tax Money Back

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Cities and local governments around the region are struggling under the burden of the economy. Chicago's cutting services and raising some taxes to help make ends meet. Cook County is looking to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars. But, there are some good news stories too. Every year something unusual happens in the south-suburban village of Crestwood, Illinois. The village gives residents some of their property tax money back, and this year is no different.

Really. I know it sounds like fantasy land in this economy.  But even in a recession year the village of Crestwood has “surplus funds” that it redistributes to eligible homeowners.

Residents have to bring in a lot of paperwork to prove they are actually eligible.

The clerk has to review all the documents, and stamps applications with a satisfying, inky pound when they're complete. It makes for busy days at the Crestwood Village office where residents filter in and out with their applications. The process can cause some stress; I watched an elderly couple fight in the parking lot over who forgot to bring what papers. But for the most part, Crestwood's residents are happy with the village and very, very happy with the refund. Last year, they got about 36-percent of their total property tax bills back.

Marylyn Sullivan has lived in Crestwood for 22 years.

SULLIVAN: Many is a time I thought about maybe moving and then I though about my tax refund and I thought, 'Oh no, this is like my little heaven.'
HILL: And do you have friends in nearby towns who are jealous of your tax refund?
SULLIVAN: Oh you better believe it, you better believe it. Enough that I had one of my friends move here because of that. You know, they are wondering, how come your town got it?

And, that's the real question. How, especially in an economy like this, is the village of Crestwood able to send money back to its residents? Mayor Robert Stranczek says it takes a lot of work, and a lot of frugality.

STRANCZEK: It's been the village's policy for over 40 years to run the village as a business.

Stranczek says that means the village lives within its budget. It doesn't buy things it doesn't really need. And it saves-up to buy the things it does.

STRANZEK: You know, we see how Crestwood is to a lot of people the envy of the South Side here. We put a lot of work into that, too. It's a lot easier to go out and pass bonds and pass tax referendum to get more money. But it's not the prudent thing to do as we see in other forms of government.

The village has privatized some city services And it leans heavily on volunteers and part time workers.

STRANZEK: We have 25 full time employees for our village and we have 12,000 residents here. We have a full time policy chief but then we have part time officers. We have a volunteer fire department. So a lot of our expenses there are lowered from other communities that have full time forces.

Crestwood's tax rebate has been in place for more than a decade, and while it might not be easy to replicate there may be some lessons that other municipalities can take from village's model. Lawrence Msall is the executive director of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group. He says part-time employees can be a good way for municipalities, and companies for that matter, to reduce costs.

MSALL: By having more part time employees you reduce your pension cost and your other benefit costs and so it can be an effective way to deliver the same or more effective services for less of a cost.

In this economy, low pension and benefit costs don't mean Crestwood is immune to the economic downturn. Sales taxes are down this year—which means that the rebate checks may be less than last year. But, Crestwood resident Ryan Johnson will be happy with whatever the village can send back. He says he recently lost his job as a banker.

JOHNSON: So this helps, any little bit helps. I'm glad to come in here and get my check, so this works for me.

Johnson says he's thought about moving, but he won't go. It's cheap to live in Crestwood he says, and he's glad to be here.

I'm Adriene Hill, Chicago Public Radio.

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