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In an effort to close a yawning budget gap made all the worse by large swaths of property that remain off the tax rolls, Evanston City Council has dusted off a taxation scheme tried and abandoned by the King of England in the 17th century – the window tax.
Under the ordinance introduced to Council April 1, the City would capture a 7 cent per window tax for each and every window in excess of 100 in all buildings not specifically exempted by the act. The exemptions are broad and varied and exclude nearly every type of business operating within the City. Two types of operations that are not exempted: hospitals and universities.
The ordinance, which checks in at a hefty 69 pages, contains 483 “whereas” clauses designed to shield the City from expected legal challenges. “The more ‘whereas’ clauses, the better chance you have,” said the City’s specially appointed tax counsel Armond A. Legg. “Do you see how many we’ve got in there? We are so safe.” Mr. Legg said the City’s status as a home rule entity made the tax possible. “Essentially, ‘home rule’ means we can do pretty much whatever we want. And we want these guys to pay their fair share.”
One hospital official, who spoke anonymously in the hopes that the ordinance would not pass and therefore “I can avoid burning some bridges,” said that the obvious impact of the law would be the boarding up of hospital windows. “It’s the only way, really. Patients can turn on the television to see what it’s like outside. Those who can ambulate can go for a stroll,” the official said. “But we’d rather keep our windows, in all honesty…”
The impact of the new tax on revenue generation could not be estimated, in large part based upon the reaction of the hospital noted above. “We just don’t know how many windows we’re talking about at the end of the day,” said Mr. Legg. “The important thing, though, is that we are collecting something from these entities. Something. Anything.”
City Revenue Specialist Audrey Filch questioned the number of exemptions contained in the proposed ordinance.
“Really, why not take this opportunity to generate some real, sustainable revenue?” she said. “Have you seen how many windows there are in the Rotary Building? 1603 Orrington? Alice Millar Chapel?” she asked, “This is our chance, and it’s real.” Several members of Council nodded in agreement as Ms. Filch spoke.
Citizen comment reacted more to that single comment by Ms. Filch than to anything else on the agenda. Resident curmudgeon Simon Baden said, “Now, we don’t want to drive everyone out of the City, and by and large businesses pay their share.” He then paused before adding, “The purple felines could up the ante a bit, though.”
Window taxes were implemented in several European countries in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a way to tax wealthier citizens without implementing an income tax. The richer you are the more windows you have, the thinking went. Such taxes fell into disuse as the fashion of the times began to value paler and paler people, virtually eliminating operational windows among the upper classes. Extensive research failed to turn up even a single effort to institute such a tax in the United States.
Though the ordinance has been introduced, prospects for passage are unclear. An obscure provision in the Illinois Constitution means that even if passed, the tax could not take effect until April 1, 2013.