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Tax 'revolting' time in DuPage


They're seething at Cinnamon Glen. They're going nuts at Chestnut Ridge. They're cross at Cobbler's Crossing and Covington Cove.

It's "revolting" time in DuPage County, the Chicago area's bland but affluent western suburbia, where these and hundreds of other subdivisions with equally vapid names are churning with political unrest. Not something you'd expect in the state's richest county, but hey, the "haves" have problems, too. So in this year's Republican primary (the only one that matters in DuPage) voters unexpectedly struck down Jack Knuepfer, president of the DuPage County Board for 12 years and one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

We in the media immediately whipped out our favorite explanation for a political development we don't understand: taxpayers' revolt. We declare one at least every two years, usually with the approval of most politicians, who find it easier to denounce taxes than to talk sense. But the explanation made some sense. Knuepfer's county board and other local governments in DuPage, especially school districts, raised taxes repeatedly in the last several years, to the point where DuPage real estate taxes are the highest in the state -- around $3,600 a year on a $150,000 house in the average suburb.

Knuepfer's victorious opponent, Aldo Botti, had made local property taxes the centerpiece of his campaign. A few days after his victory he came out in favor of a constitutional amendment to make it harder to raise state taxes as well. And on the same day they retired Knuepfer, DuPage voters also smote state Rep. Gene Hoffman, the only DuPage legislator with the guts to vote to raise the state income tax last year.

Before you expend too much sympathy on the residents of Timber Creek and Mayfair Station, remember that DuPagers have a lot of money. The average DuPage home sold for $150,815 last year, 43 percent above the Chicago area average. The county's per capita income of $16,924 is 36 percent higher than that in Illinois as a whole; it makes DuPage the 27th richest of 3,139 counties in the United States.

Of course, just because you can afford to pay high taxes doesn't mean you like paying them. But there were some signs that taxes weren't the only issue. Another DuPage state representative, the profoundly anti-tax Ralph Barger, was defeated by a candidate who favors retaining the state income tax surcharge. And other anti-tax legislators came closer than ever before to being defeated in the March primary.

I think the voters are mad not only over taxes but over DuPage County's failure to live up to expectations, and they're taking it out on convenient targets. They're like a woman who's disappointed because her marriage hasn't lived up to the ideal she developed by reading romantic novels.

DuPage has added about 130,000 residents since 1980, and they fall largely into two groups. One comprises people who moved out from Chicago and close-in suburbs to escape city congestion, crime. Democrats and (let's be honest) minorities. The other group consists of those who moved in from outside the Chicago area, often to take jobs in the county's booming high technology and service industries. DuPage promised, in the words of the new home ads, "charming neighborhoods(s)," "wooded beauty," "perfection of setting," "convenience" and "the dash of the unexpected."

What's unexpected is the horrible traffic, caused by the county's unplanned growth. Sure, there's a commuter train system, but it's designed to take people into Chicago. Only 15 percent of the Chicago area's workforce lives in a suburb and works in the city. The majority of DuPage residents live in one suburb and work in another. They drive to work on highways clogged with Chicagoans who

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work in DuPage but can't afford to live there.

The "wooded beauty" that drew people to DuPage is vanishing as the bulldozers move in to create new subdivisions and commercial strips. And the neighborhoods seem a lot less charming on days when the odor of the nearby sanitary landfill wafts over. DuPage hasn't been able to figure out what to do with its garbage.

Solving these problems costs money, and when you're as wealthy as DuPage it's almost impossible to find someone else to pay the bill. Knuepfer frequently complained that DuPage gets back only 38 cents for every dollar of state income tax paid by its residents. The result is frustration and disillusionment. But these are well-educated people. Couldn't the politicians explain the facts of life to them?

I don't envy any politician trying to communicate with DuPage voters. Many of them expect to be there only a couple of years between the job in the Dallas suburb and the job in the Atlanta suburb. According to Naperville officials, the average family stays there only two years and nine months before moving on. So why should they pay local taxes to solve some long-range DuPage problem? They probably won't even be in DuPage in a year or two. Why pay state taxes to improve the Chicago schools? They seldom, if ever, set foot in Chicago. For DuPage newcomers, there's no political tradition, no sense of place. Their subdivisions seem disconnected from any city or village. Many of the cities and villages are equally amorphous; it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins.

The political future of Illinois, however, lies much more with DuPage and the rest of the collar counties than with the city of Chicago or downstate. DuPage grew about 19 percent in the 1980s, the other collar counties almost as much. But Cook County grew by only 1 percent, and the rest of the state outside the six-county Chicago area actually lost about 3 percent. That means statewide politicians are likely to pay more and more attention to the real and perceived problems of suburbia. The danger is that they'll worry too much about taxpayers' revolts and not enough about the problems of the less fortunate parts of the state.

John Camper is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

May 1990/Illinois Issues/33

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