Editorial: Another Cook County debacle
Thursday, October 08, 2009
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
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.