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Editorial: Another Cook County debacle

Thursday, October 08, 2009
Pioneer Press
by Pioneer Press Editorial Staff

Taxing bodies in Cook County used to be able to plan their revenue streams with some consistency. Receipts from property taxes showed up in March and October.

Everything worked almost like clockwork; the multiplier was announced in late summer. That meant the rates could be determined and applied against the equalized assessments. Tax bills would show up a few weeks later.

This year taxing bodies won't see any revenue from tax bills until probably early December. For governments which have multiple sources of income (such as sales taxes or user fees), this delay will be inconvenient but not critical. But for school districts, which rely heavily on property tax revenues to run their operations, this delay will be costly. Coupled with a shrinking tax base from foreclosures and assessment appeals, schools will be hard pressed to maintain business as usual.

Districts which have sufficient cash reserves will be able to survive without too much inconvenience although they'll lose the interest that money would have been earning. Districts which don't have enough cash on hand will have to borrow against those tax revenues. That borrowing will add to the district's expenses.

In the past few years, county officials blame the almost regular delays in getting out Cook County tax bills on taxpayer appeals (almost 300,000 this year) which have to be decided before the multiplier can be determined. Those appeals were finished in late July.

But this year the county had another problem. For some reason no one can explain, Cook County computers failed to calculate automatic exemptions for some 80,000 taxpayers. The problem was caught before the 1.7 million Cook County tax bills were sent, but it meant that everything has to be recalculated: each government's tax base, every tax rate and every tax bill.

The second installment is particularly critical for taxing bodies because it's usually the bigger of the two, as the first bill is determined merely by dividing last year's property tax bill in half. The second bill reflects what is generally the bulk of any increase (or decrease) from the other half of last year's bill.

Next year should be easier for government bodies, although not so good for taxpayers. A new state law, proposed by the city of Chicago and supported by the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois and the Illinois Property Tax Lawyers Association, will require taxpayers to pay 55 percent of the 2010 tax bill in the first installment in March. That will give taxing bodies some cushion to get them through the fall.

Ironically, most suburban taxpayers probably wouldn't be seeing much sticker shock next year because the 2009 tax cap is almost flat. Without any increase in the value of the tax base, taxing bodies won't be able to ask taxpayers for much more money.

Cook County taxpayers and taxing bodies have come to expect inefficiencies in their government. Other counties assess properties at market value, have little or no multiplier applied to balance skewed assessments and send and collect bills promptly. True, those counties have fewer properties, but they also have smaller staffs.

Unless something is done, taxpayers could be paying the second installment of 2010 taxes in 2011 while local governments are borrowing more money to pay for the county's inefficiencies.

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