Leaving Illinois: How simple math chased away a village mayor and his family
By: Ted Dabrowski
If there was one guy you’d think wouldn’t succumb to the pressures of living in Illinois, it’s Lakewood Mayor Paul Serwatka.
He’s a reformer and a fighter. In the past year he’s succeeded where most politicians refuse to go. He lowered the Village of Lakewood’s property taxes by 10 percent and eliminated a TIF district, going against the trend of higher spending and bigger tax bills in communities across the state. And he did all that without cutting services. He was showing Illinoisans what reform-oriented leadership could look like.
But every family that’s chosen to flee Illinois in recent years hit a breaking point and Serwatka finally hit his. For him, it was the risk he wouldn’t be able to care financially for his growing family.
You can’t blame him and those families that have already left. For many, it’s become too expensive to live in Illinois. For others, good-paying working class and manufacturing jobs have disappeared. And for yet others, they’re tired of being taken for granted and mistreated by their politicians.
That’s true even in Lakewood, a city of nearly 5,000 people located in McHenry County. Residents in that county pay some of the state’s – and the nation’s – highest effective tax rates, measured as a percentage of household incomes.
Serwatka has four young children to think about – ages 3 to 8 – and he did the basic math that many Illinois families are doing in their kitchens or family rooms. They’re comparing what their property taxes are in Illinois to what they could be in other states – and what they could do with all the money they save.
For Serwatka, his comparison city was Decatur, Alabama.
There his family found 10 acres and a house that’s 25 percent bigger than their current Illinois home, all at roughly the same cost. The Alabama house also has access to a private lake shared by some 60 homeowners. And his home in Decatur is only 20 miles from Huntsville, which is booming in all kinds of ways.
What are his Alabama property taxes going to cost him? Just $2,200 a year. That’s a lot lower than the $15,400 he’s paying on the home in Lakewood.
If Serwatka saves that $13,000 difference every year and invests it at 6 percent annually for the next 20 years, he’ll have accumulated savings of more than $600,000 dollars.
It’s a difference Serwatka and his wife, Robin, just couldn’t ignore.
Sadly, Illinois politicians continue to push property tax rates to record levels. They are the highest in the nation, double the rate in Missouri and three times higher than those in Indiana.
Serwatka is confident he’s delivered on the promises he made when he took office. Residents who were looking for reforms, lower taxes and more respect from their politicians got exactly that from him .
But in the end, the savings he produced as the mayor of a small town weren’t enough to offset the tax increases coming from the school district and the other myriad of local governments, not to mention the state itself.
Those taxes are now so high they’re chasing out even the reformers – those bold enough to buck the system in Illinois.
The reality is, Illinois’ failed policies discriminate against no one. People are being forced to do what’s best for their families. And if that means leaving, they’re doing it.