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Area schools face new financial crisis

Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Public schools throughout Cook County soon may be facing a financial crisis similar to the one that confronts the Regional Transportation Authority and Chicago Transit Authority.
And like the public transit mess, this crisis seems to have been precipitated by the ongoing political feud in Springfield between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
In short, Cook County is unable to issue property tax bills because the governor has yet to sign a bill that extends for three years the 7 percent annual assessment growth cap on residential property.
The bill, created by Madigan, was designed as a replacement for the 7 percent solution - the brainchild of Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan that was intended to limit the impact of property tax increases in Chicago, where bills in some areas had gone up more than 60 percent.
"I don't have any numbers, so I can't issue tax bills," said Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office mails tax bills to residents.
The county assessor and clerk usually provide the numbers, but they say they can't take action until they know what the state legislation is going to do to the county's tax assessments.
"I told my school districts that we can expect to lose $300,000 a month, or about $10,000 a day, just in the interest we would have made off of the property tax money, had we received it and put the money in an interest-bearing account," said Rob Grossi, treasurer of Bloom Township schools.
The latest that tax bills have gone out in recent memory is Oct. 15 in 2004, according to the county assessor's office. Those bills were due for payment Nov. 15.
Homeowners have 30 days from the time they receive their bills to pay them.
"School bond payments come due Dec. 1 for everyone in Cook County," Grossi said. "That's just the way it works. If we don't see property tax revenue by then, many school districts are going to have to issue tax anticipation warrants to pay the bonds on time. They will have to pay interest on those warrants, money they will never be able to recover. And as a result, their bond ratings are likely to be affected in a negative way."
One south suburban school district estimates it will pay $500,000 in interest on its loans if it fails to receive property tax revenue by Dec. 1.
Wealthy public school districts could draw down on their cash reserves while waiting for the tax revenue, but they would lose interest they would otherwise earn on that money.
"If the property tax payments were two months late, the Chicago Public Schools would lose approximately $10 million in interest it would have earned on its cash reserves," said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for the CPS.
That figure is the estimate if property tax revenue fails to be delivered by Dec. 1.
According to county officials, it would take about 30 days to put together the property tax bills after the state gets its act together.
In addition to public school districts, the property tax helps finance municipalities, county government, fire protection districts, library districts, park districts and other government entities, such as the South Cook Mosquito Abatement District.
But none of those taxing bodies rely as heavily on the property tax as the public schools.
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Houlihan had scheduled a news conference Monday to call attention to the property tax crisis, but they called it off at the last minute.
According to my sources, the governor's office assured them Blagojevich would take "some action" on the tax cap bill on Wednesday.
"But we don't know if that means he plans to veto the bill, use his amendatory veto power or sign it as it is," another source said.
Many people in government refused even to speak on the record about the crisis for fear of getting caught up in the Blagojevich-Madigan feud.
"These guys will kill you if you if they think you're coming out for one or criticizing the other," I was told. "They won't let any legislation pass that you need. Everything's a vendetta down in Springfield these days. They don't care about anything else."
As if to illustrate this point, when I called the governor's office seeking comment, I was told Madigan is holding up about $400 million in additional education spending the state Legislature approved.
That money was supposed to increase school spending by about $400 per pupil, but Madigan wants to hold public hearings about the authorization proposal, according to the governor's office.
So, in addition to facing late property tax payments, the schools are not getting the additional money the state promised.
The governor has 60 days to sign bills, and the Madigan measure, HB 664, did not arrive at his desk until Aug. 17, so he theoretically has until mid-October to make up his mind.
One source told me he thinks Blagojevich probably will use his amendatory veto power this week and send the bill back to the Legislature.
If that happens, the governor would have to call a special session of the General Assembly to get tax bills out before the Dec. 1 deadline.
"He's not likely to sign any bill Madigan wanted," one elected official said. "Everybody knows that."
As someone else told me, "Politically, this state's a mess."

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