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Kadner: Debt and taxes grow, Cook County treasurer reports

Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas believes that if people find out how local governments are spending their tax money they will do something about it.

So Pappas has accumulated an impressive amount of financial data on 489 of the 553 government bodies that collect property tax revenue in Cook County and placed it on a website,

Pappas said the total debt of local governments in Cook County has reached $140 billion ($35,774 per suburban household).

This isn’t money that Cook County government is spending or owes. These are local taxing bodies such as school districts, municipalities, park districts, library districts, fire protection districts, etc.

Pappas contends that while world attention is focused on the economic crisis in Greece, national attention is focused on the Great Recession and major media expose Illinois’ massive debt, no one is looking at the local picture.

“This is the first time anyone has put all this information together, where the average person can access it and find out just what kind of financial shape their local governments are in,” Pappas said of her office’s debt disclosure report.

“Every single person (in Cook County) has 14 to 20 government agencies they’re paying property taxes to, and now they can see just what kind of financial condition they (agencies) are in. It’s the sort of information I would want if I were looking at buying a home somewhere. It’s the sort of information I would want if I lived in a community.”

By typing your property index number (located on your tax bill) into a web link, you can find this financial information that affects you.

Pappas notes in her report that Illinois has 6,994 units of local government, far more than any other state. That’s 2,000 more than in Pennsylvania, which ranks second in the country with 4,871 units of government, she said.

Pappas makes a valiant attempt at explaining the county’s property tax system, which confounds most homeowners.

Although many people complain about their property assessments and tax bills, few understand that the property tax is really all about the tax levy — the total amount of money that each taxing district seeks to raise to support the services it provides you.

If everyone in a suburb managed by some miracle to get their assessment reduced, your suburb would still have to collect what it levies to pay for police, street repairs, snow removal and other town functions.

In her report on local debt, Pappas also explains the property tax cap system and how referendums are used to get around the cap. She uses the Palos Fire Protection District as an example because it held a referendum in the March primary election to raise its tax limit.

Readers of this newspaper should be aware of that because the SouthtownStar printed several stories about the financial woes of the fire district and discussions about it merging with the Orland Fire Protection District.

Pappas implies that the language of the Palos district referendum was confusing, if not misleading, because it described how much the tax increase would be on a home with a market value of $100,000 ($82.50) — leaving residents to do the math if they owned a home with a higher market value, as is the case for most homes in the district.

I think referendum language is usually confusing. Some of that is required legally, and some of it is designed to confuse the voter. But in this case, I think people could do the math, and I think people understood the issue pretty well.

They voted to increase the district’s property tax rate to provide more revenue and keep both its fire stations open. Will they remember that when their increased property tax bills arrive?

Speaking of fire protection districts, one of the more fascinating statistics in the treasurer’s report is the increase in their levies from 2000 to 2010 — by 84.7 percent, from $50.4 million to $93.2 million.

Levies for cities and villages rose by 75.4 percent over that 10-year period, from $755.6 million to $1.3 billion. Those for school districts, which represent about 67 percent of the typical property tax bill in Cook County, rose by 58.4 percent, from $2.8 billion to $4.5 billion.

Overall, levies for all governments in the county increased by 48.3 percent, from $7.8 billion in 2000 to $11.69 billion in 2010.

“If the state switches teacher pension funding to suburban school districts, it can only make the property tax situation worse,” Pappas told me.

There’s plenty of government spending information out there, if taxpayers want to find it. While people like to complain, I think few care enough to do the research.

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