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Tax levies up 48% from 2000 across Cook County

Monday, March 12, 2012
Daily Herald
by Jake Griffin

A new study indicates Cook County's 550-plus taxing bodies combined to increase their collective property tax levies by 48 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a nonprofit governmental finance research organization, conducted the study using data from Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' office. The study shows that in 2000, the county's taxing bodies collected $7.9 billion combined, but by 2010 that number had risen to $11.69 billion. That's more than twice the rate of inflation — 22.5 percent — for the area over the same decade, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The report is similar to a recent Daily Herald investigation of property tax levies for municipalities in the newspaper's seven-county coverage area that showed all but one municipality, Elburn, had raised its levy over the past five years. It shows a larger spike in suburban taxing districts than in the city of Chicago.

“The suburbs need to be watched,” said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association. “They are a ticking time bomb.”

The Heartland study looked at municipalities, school districts, libraries, fire districts, parks, townships, sanitary systems and other ancillary agencies, but only in Cook County. Heartland's director of government relations, John Nothdurft, oversaw the analysis and blamed taxpayer-funded retirement costs for the spike.

“The property tax burden will skyrocket in the next decade, despite stagnant or declining home prices, because of growing public pension and benefit obligations,” he said.

The report does not show any analysis of a correlation between pension costs and levy spikes over the 10-year period. Nothdurft said his organization would be investigating those connections in the future.

While the study highlights some of the county's largest tax levy increases, it also includes special service areas and tax increment financing district revenues, which skews the results because money from those taxes aren't spread throughout an entire area and only some property owners pay them. Also skewing the results is the fact that several suburban tax bodies that overlap other counties did not have those portions of the tax levy analyzed.

For instance, the Heartland report shows Community Unit District 300, based in Carpentersville, increased its Cook County levy by nearly 700 percent in the last decade. But that's because only a minuscule portion of the taxing district was analyzed and the increase was caused by the construction of the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.

The majority of District 300 lies in Kane and McHenry counties. Analysis of tax levies from 2003 to 2010 for all three counties shows that the total levy increased by 76 percent — from $90.3 million in 2003 to $159 million in 2010.

Several municipalities also overlap the county's borders.

Heartland officials said their report is a companion to a study that Pappas' office released last year showing taxing bodies throughout the county had encumbered more than $108 billion in debts. However, that report was disputed by many taxing bodies because the data used to compile the study was incomplete in many cases. They blamed the errors on miscommunication with Pappas' office. Pappas is expected to release a new report on debt in less than two months.

Pappas also attended the news conference and pointed to several voter-approved tax hikes over the past four years as one reason why some agencies were allowed to levy more than what Illinois' tax cap law would normally allow. Her office compiled a list that shows 33 ballot questions were approved by voters in the last four years that would have directly increased their property taxes.

“People are starting to figure out they should vote no,” Pappas said.

Heartland officials said Cook County property owners pay taxes to between 12 and 20 different agencies, depending on where they live.

Some are suggesting some of the taxing bodies should consolidate to cut out redundancies and lower personnel costs, which account for roughly 80 percent on average of every government agency.

“You'd have to be foolish to say you don't want consolidation, but how you get there is the issue,” Pappas said.




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