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Your taxes and (Surprise!) your enormous debts
Quinn and Rutherford should get county treasurers statewide to mimic Pappas' transparency

Friday, January 25, 2013
Chicago Tribune

Early next week, Cook County property owners will learn how much their school districts, city halls and other local governments are billing them for public services rendered.

Surprise! The first of this year's two property tax bills will divulge more than merely the amount each taxpayer must fork over by March 1. The staff of County Treasurer Maria Pappas has made these bills a more intriguing read — disclosing not only what's due today, but clues to the enormously larger amounts taxpayers have to pay tomorrow. The short version: While you were busy living your life and trusting public officials to be frugal stewards of public finances, many of them incurred huge debts in your name. They've spent, borrowed and obligated you, and your children, to the hilt. How you'll ever pay for it all is beyond us.

So if you're running for a local office, or if you're one of those pesky taxpayers who's infuriated by nasty secrets, you'll covet this information. From this tax bill forward, the pushy question you need to pose to every incumbent and challenger: Tell us how you plan to pay off all this debt.

For the first time, your bill documents the total debts and liabilities of each government to which you pay taxes — your school districts, your municipality, your community college, your mosquito abatement district, and so on. The bills list each government's additional, unfunded pension liability, and the percentage of its pension liability that is funded. For comparison's sake, you'll see each government's annual budget. Example:

Cook County government's numbers, which appear on everyone's bill, show debts and liabilities of $6.8 billion, plus $6.4 billion in unfunded pension obligations. For more than four years, then, county government could devote every penny of its annual operating budget — this year's is about $3 billion — and still not pay off the debts and unfunded obligations that County Board members have created. And beware: The county's pension system is only 55 percent funded; the other 45 percent will have to come from someone. Go ahead, guess.

Chicago taxpayers: Beyond your County Building and forest preserve obligations, your City Hall lists $50.1 billion in debts and pension obligations; your schools another $19.5 billion; your community college, park and water reclamation districts a combined $6.4 billion.

For some governments the obligations run even higher than they appear on the bills; the local financial statements, from which these numbers are extracted, don't all include their unfunded future health costs for public retirees.

We routinely stress that public debt isn't by definition evil: Governments borrow for long-range capital projects and to grease short-range cash flow. But citizens armed with Pappas' data need to be pressing mayors, school board members and other officials to explain how they ever hope to retire debts that have reached onerous multiples of annual revenues. Worse, many of those local debt burdens continue to rise — despite all the attention paid to runaway public debt in Washington and Springfield. Little wonder that, as Pappas calculates, property taxes have risen at triple the rate of inflation over the past two decades.

Pappas suspects that many officials who love to boast of holding property taxes in check actually spend as much as they please and quietly pile up huge debts that, until now, they don't explain to the taxpayers stuck with those debts. She also thinks many officials see future property tax hikes as their only salvation.

These debt totals appear on your tax bill because, since 2009, Pappas has pushed a requirement that every local government expose its obligations. These bills reflect data from 536 of those 549 governments.

We wish Gov. Pat Quinn and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford would press all county treasurers to build similar databases, which Pappas' staff refreshes annually. Green-eyeshade types from credit rating agencies use her website to assess the creditworthiness of local governments. And smart real estate agents counsel buyers to avoid towns where residents have let their public officials obligate taxpayers to huge public debts.

Treasurer Pappas, thanks for championing this uncommon transparency. The next step needs to come from incumbent officials who've dug these huge holes, from political challengers who think they can do better, and especially from fed-up voters who'll now realize how much debt is on their shoulders.

Just keep asking every incumbent and challenger alike: Tell us how you plan to pay off all this debt.

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