Mayor Returns $48 Million to Taxpayers, Then Retires

Mayor Returns $48 Million to Taxpayers, Then Retires
November 1, 2007

Every year, folks in Crestwood, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago, open their mail to find a check paying for half their property taxes.

Who would do such an amazing, generous thing? The Village of Crestwood itself.

Crestwood's gift doesn't cover just the municipal property tax bill; it picks up half the tab for all government bodies that levy a property tax in the village, from schools to Cook County.

This practically unheard-of largesse is courtesy of Crestwood Mayor Chester Stranczek and his trustees, who have engineered such an efficient village government for the nearly 12,000 residents that they literally can pass out money to ease the property tax burden.

'Crazy' Promise Made

When he first became mayor 39 years ago, Stranczek promised property owners that some day the village would pay their taxes.

"They told me I was crazy," Stranczek said, but undeterred he began running the village like a business--a very lean business.

Stranczek, who retires this fall, explains it is done through a combination of privatization of village services, a friendly business climate, and fiscal restraint, all while providing a high degree of personal service.

Long before privatization became a familiar word, Crestwood was actively seeking more efficient and less costly contract providers for just about every municipal service.

Most Services Privatized

"We have only 21 full-time employees," Stranczek said, a remarkably small number for the long list of municipal services Crestwood provides.

"Should I give you the list? You'd be amazed," Stranczek said as he starts ticking them off: garbage removal, sidewalk replacement, street maintenance, water maintenance, sewer repairs, park maintenance and grass cutting, water meter reading and billing, ambulance service, engineering, bus service anywhere in the village for $1.10 a ride, a senior citizen center, youth services. And so on.

There are three full-time police officers and an all-volunteer fire department (whose members are paid for each call). Go down the employee roster, and you'll find one assistant services director, a half-dozen public works employees, a couple of senior service providers, and you're almost at the end of the list.

Community service officers, not police officers, patrol the two shopping centers, and crime is virtually nonexistent.

No Unneeded Equipment

Privatization also brings savings in equipment costs.

"When the weather is bad," Stranczek said, "we don't have any added cost. We don't have to buy all that equipment that just sits in the yard [waiting for the few times a year it's used]."

On the revenue side, the village pulls in more than $4 million from its share of the sales taxes produced from retailers, including a Wal-Mart, Best Buy, PetSmart, and Menard's. Stranczek notes the village has a good number of ma and pa stores, none of which seem to have been hurt by the presence of Wal-Mart.

With plenty of vacant land when he took over, Stranczek realized it would have to be put to good commercial and industrial use to avoiding overburdening residents in the bedroom community. Now Crestwood has a "nice light industrial development that's almost 95 percent built up right now," with no plans for additional residential expansion.

The number of businesses went from about 35 in 1970 to 580 today. Part of the business-friendly policy is a charge of only $1 for a business license. Developers face no impact fees.

39 Years Without Hike

Not only has the village not increased its property tax in 39 years, it has cut the rate every year, to a current low of 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, Stranczek said. Every tax increase referendum by the schools has been defeated in the past 25 years except the last one--Stranczek opposed them all, except the last one.

Such fiscal discipline hasn't hurt the level of satisfaction with services, Stranczek said, adding, "I wouldn't be in office for 39 years if they weren't satisfied. We don't get five complaints a year," including on the village phone he keeps handy in his home to hear what his constituents have to say at all hours.

Who should complain when the village has given back as much as 75 percent of the tax bill and 48 percent last year? Over the years, the total has come to $48 million.

Confident About Successor

Asked if other mayors might get some ideas by studying how Crestwood is run, Stranczek demurred. "I don't give advice to other mayors; they can swim on their own."

Stranczek is retiring early, with two years left in his term, as the 78-year-old says he doesn't have as much energy as he once had. But he says he's not worried the next mayor--to be selected by the board from its five members, which includes his son Robert--will reverse his policies.

"I have no doubt in my mind that they won't," Stranczek said. "If I did, I wouldn't be retiring."


Dennis Byrne (dennis@dennisbyrne.net) is a Chicago newspaper columnist and freelance writer.