Dear Cook County Taxpayer:
As you read this, your 2nd Installment property tax bill for tax year 2011 is in the mail. You should receive it in a day or two. ...
Our latest calculations show that the governments of Cook County owe at least $140 billion for pensions and other costs, money which will come out of our payments and our future. ...
—Message from Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, July 1, 2012
That gasp you hear? It's the sound of politicians and public officials throughout Cook County sucking wind. How will they respond — starting Sunday — if their neighbors and other local taxpayers demand to know, "How could you have done this to us?"
Yes, Cook County's second-installment property tax bills — they were to be mailed early Saturday — will be delivered months earlier than in years past. They'll be delivered, that is, when the law says they're supposed to be delivered.
Arguably the bigger change this year, though, is that taxpayers have an extraordinary new tool with which to understand those bills. If and when they do, many taxpayers will be outraged by the huge debts and unfunded pension obligations that their local officials — at 526 school districts, municipal governments and other taxing bodies — have created for today's and tomorrow's taxpayers.
County Treasurer Maria Pappas is publishing an unprecedented mother lode of information about these local governments in 138-page sections that accompany the print editions of Sunday's Tribune and other Chicago-area newspapers. Online readers who follow the steps below also can learn the answers to questions such as:
• How aggressively has each of the 12 to 20 local governments on my tax bill been raising its tax collections every year?
• By what percentage did each of these tax levies jump between 2001 and 2010 — and how does that compare to the 23.4 percent rise of inflation over those same years?
• How much debt burden has each government's spending and borrowing created for local taxpayers? How much in unfunded pension obligations?
• By what percentage has each government been raising employees' salaries?
Taken together, Pappas says, the information helps citizens answer one overriding question:Why, exactly, do my property tax bills keep rising?
She might have added: And what should the consequences be for the incumbent pols who oversee these governments? Do I want to run against them, campaign for their defeat — or give them bearhugs for their good stewardship?
Some of this is information that local governments may disclose in obtuse financial statements but usually don't broadcast to citizens. No wonder: In many communities, local pols boast of holding taxes steady while not disclosing that they're also increasing spending by dangerously borrowing, and thus expanding the public's indebtedness. That strategy has helped many incumbents hold local offices — and explains how that indebtedness has flown north of $140 billion.
Here, in four easy steps, is your path to knowing how well, or how poorly, your local government officials have treated taxpayers:
1. Set aside the section headlined "Read Your Tax Bill" in the print edition of Sunday's Tribune. On its cover is a letter from Pappas and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — both of whom want you to know that most of your property tax payment goes to local governments other than Cook County.
2. When your tax bill arrives this week, set it next to the newspaper section. Find each local government listed on your bill in the section and examine its profile.
3. If you're an online reader, go to chicagotribune.com/pappasdebt and enter the 14-digit Property Index Number, or PIN, that's on your tax bill. You then can explore the same info about each of your local governments.
4. Then decide whether the growth of each government's taxation, salaries, debt and unfunded pension obligations — compared to that 23.4 percent growth of inflation over the last decade — makes you want to storm the barricades or instead say, "Thanks for a job well done!"
As fans of government transparency, we're glad Cook County residents now have easy access to how prudently, or foolishly, their local officials perform. One current benefit: As Pappas gradually has been rolling out local data online, some real estate agents already are showing prospective homebuyers how much public debt they'll face if they buy in a given community.
And one future benefit: As smart taxpayers realize how much money local governments cost them, expect more of them to call for streamlining, consolidating and eliminating some of Illinois' most-in-the-nation 7,000 governments.