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Your next debt bomb

Friday, December 03, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

A year ago, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas set out to expose the debt burdens for every governmental unit in her county. The results will startle many voters and, we expect, spur demands across Illinois and the rest of the country to make this information as transparent elsewhere as it now is here: On Thursday, easy-to-read spreadsheets built from Pappas' research went live on her office's Web site.

Take a peek.

The point isn't that public debt, by definition, is nefarious. It's that citizens need to be pressing their mayors, school board presidents and other local officials to explain how, exactly, they plan to retire these sometimes huge burdens. Many of those officials will have to admit that they've stuck taxpayers with far more debt than their shrunken revenues can comfortably retire.

Late in 2009, Pappas got County Board approval to collect and post this debt information from local governments. Most complied by uploading their financial statements to her computer system; it's important to note that these numbers originated with the local governments themselves. The treasurer's staff then rearranged the numbers onto spreadsheets. You'll find them at cookcountytreasurer.com; click on the blue link labeled, "How much does your local government owe?" Among the revelations:

• The 489 governmental bodies that responded had about $56 billion in debts and liabilities versus $28 billion in operating budget revenues. Some of that debt load is reasonable; governments borrow money for long-range improvements much as individuals take out mortgages to buy homes. Then they retire that debt out of subsequent tax collections.

• But some governments have much higher ratios of debts to revenues. Example: Evanston lists debts of almost $368 million as of 2009, but operating revenues of $94 million. Each Evanstonian's share of those liabilities is a bracing $4,736 — and that's for municipal government alone, not schools and other local taxing bodies. The city could barely pay off its debts even if it didn't spend one dime on anything else for four years. Pappas' site has Willow Springs, the Barrington Park District, Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 and others in similarly lopsided fixes. And on and on.

• Pappas' site identifies 69 local governments that, she says, have refused instructions to provide the data. Some of those, she suspects, are trying to hide embarrassing levels of indebtedness. City of Burbank, Winnetka School District 36, village of Oak Lawn, Evanston Township — what's with you and the other governments listed as nonrespondents?

• The city of Chicago lists $25 billion in debts and liabilities (as of 2008), nearly four times revenue of $6.3 billion (for 2009). In 2008, Cook County owed $5.6 billion, and had $2.8 billion in revenue. Local government debts — City Hall, schools, parks, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, etc. — total $12,484 per Chicagoan. That's a lot of debt for taxpayers to retire.

Here's a troubling asterisk: "Some governments included their pension liabilities and some didn't," Pappas says. That means many of these debts and liabilities could be gravely understated. Sunday's Tribune reported that Chicago suburbs have underfunded their pension systems by some $5 billion.

Pappas' next mission: Within weeks she'll seek County Board approval to identify the pension debts of every government in Cook County.

The logical question for every official in these local governments: Who's going to pay off all of this debt? Federal and state governments typically seek increases in income and sales taxes. Pappas' fear is that local governments instead will try to retire their debt burdens by raising property taxes.

While Washington and Springfield tell you how much more you need to pay to retire their liabilities, your next debt bomb is ticking away at your local governments right down the street.



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