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Cook County property taxes soared at twice inflation rate in a decade

Monday, March 12, 2012
Crain's Chicago Business

Property taxes collected in Cook County rose twice as fast as inflation in the first decade of this century — and the boost was particularly high in the suburbs.

That's the somewhat surprising but sadly believable conclusion of a provocative new report released today by a pair of libertarian think tanks and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

The report, prepared by the Heartland Institute and released with the backing of the Illinois Policy Institute, found that, overall, property taxes collected by all governments in Cook County rose from $7.89 billion in 2000 to $11.69 billion in 2010. That's a 48 percent hike, more than twice the 22.5 percent increase in the local consumer price index, according to Heartland.

Taxes within Chicago proper, mostly for the city and the Board of Education, grew at a lesser rate, 44 percent, the study found. But suburban school districts collectively increased their levy by 58.4 percent, townships 62.7 percent, non-Chicago municipalities 75.4 percent and suburban fire districts a cool 84.7 percent.

Such increases are "unsustainable," are costing the Chicago region jobs and threaten "financial collapse" unless reversed, said Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute.

Warned report author John Nothdurft of Heartland, "The property tax burden will skyrocket in the next decade, despite stagnant or declining home prices, because of growing public pension and benefit obligations."

Cook County itself held its levy flat but increased sales and other taxes.

Pension costs indeed are a big part of the reason for the spending hike. Benefit levels often are set not in local negotiations but by state law.

But another fair chunk of the increase came from tax-increment financing districts in the city — arguably a sign that the districts have succeeded in their goal to boost economic development and the tax base, though local governments surely ate up the resulting revenues.

In another oddity, Mr. Nothdurft and others said much of the increase in levies had been approved by suburban votes in various bond referendums. That would seem in opposition to the normal conservative argument that small, locally focused governments are held more accountable and control their costs better than giant governments such as the city of Chicago and Cook County.

But those at the press conference argued that, in fact, suburban governments draw much less media scrutiny than does Chicago City Hall, so suburban voters are ill-informed at election time, at least relatively.

"The suburbs are operating under the radar screen," said Better Government Association chief Andy Shaw, who also spoke at the press conference unveiling the report.

"The (suburban) voters don't understand what they are voting on," Treasurer Pappas said.

Ms. Pappas took the occasion to urge consolidation of the county's hundreds of governments, suggesting that could save big money. "It would be foolish not to favor consolidation."

But a couple of weeks ago, Ms. Pappas failed to back a measure to merge the county recorder of deeds office into the county clerk's office, a step the Civic Federation said could save $1 million a year. The proposal failed by one vote.

Ms. Pappas said she favors a wider merger, involving the various county units that administer the property tax system.

The Illinois Policy Institute last week issued a report on state government that among other things urged the state to balance its budget by no longer picking up the cost of teacher retirement in the suburbs and no longer giving municipalities a cut of state income tax proceeds.

Doing both could deprive local governments in the county of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, perhaps pushing property taxes even higher. But the institute says the shift will pressure them to "tighten their belts."

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