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New Cook County tax bills coming

Monday, January 27, 2014
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

As record cold temperatures hit, tax bills arriving in mailboxes this week likely will get blood boiling in Cook County homes.

The first-installment 2013 bills began arriving Monday and are due March 4. County Treasurer Maria Pappas has included new, more detailed, information on local government spending and debt.

“The No. 1 question I’ve gotten ever since I became treasurer is, ‘Why are my property tax bills so high?’” Pappas said. “Well, if people look at the bills and the debt being carried by local governments, you will know.

“These bills include pension and health care funding shortages (for retirees) so taxpayers can clearly see the debt that threatens to overwhelm many of them.”

The tax bill, which physically is bigger this year to include all the financial information about government spending, includes categories labeled “Money Owed by Your Taxing Districts,” “Pension and Healthcare Amounts Promised by Your Taxing Districts,” “Amount of Pension and Healthcare Shortage” and “% of Pension and Healthcare Costs Taxing District Can Pay.”

Pappas said all of the financial information is provided by the taxing bodies to her office under legislation passed by the General Assembly.

In the past, some mayors and school board officials have called “foul,” claiming that Pappas’ office has failed to interpret the figures properly.

“What do you expect them to say?” she told me during a telephone conversation Monday. “Do you expect them to say, ‘Yes, this is accurate and looks really bad?’ These are their figures, and this is how they are spending your tax money.”

A sample bill provided by Pappas shows Cook County lacking $7.4 billion to pay off its roughly $15 billion pension and health care debt.

It shows Consolidated High School District 230 with pension and health care obligations of $37.5 million but states the district can pay only 37.8 percent of that amount because it is $23 million short.

“Property taxes keep increasing because your local governments are spending more money than they have,” Pappas said. “And the biggest problem, the largest amount of money by far, goes to local school districts.”

She blames the school districts for spending, but for years I have used this column to explain that property tax bills in Illinois are high because this state ranks dead last in the nation in the share of public education costs that it picks up.

“I know you have a problem with that, but no matter how much the state is spending on education or is not, the fact is that this state doesn’t have any money,” Pappas said.

“So that means local school districts are going to keep spending more and if people want lower property tax bills, they’re going to have to start going to school board meetings and asking questions.

“Most people don’t even know the names of their school board members. They’ve probably never attended a school board meeting.”

By going to the Cook County treasurer’s website (cookcountytreasurer.com), taxpayers can obtain detailed financial information on their various taxing bodies by typing their PIN (property index number) into a search engine.

On the sample tax bill Pappas sent to me, I noticed a lot of information was missing from the Orland Fire Protection District, including the amount owed under pension and health care.

I assume this means the fire protection district did not comply with the treasurer’s request for data. This has happened in the past with various taxing districts.

Pappas has said she wants taxpayers to call the uncooperative taxing bodies and urge them to comply with the law rather than her office taking legal action against them.

“Governments suing governments is a waste of tax money, and the last thing I want to do is take more money out of the pockets of taxpayers,” she said.

She said that by mailing the tax bills over the weekend, before the postage rate increase Monday, the “county saved at least $65,000, maybe more.”

Pappas is convinced that the growing long-term debt of local government poses a crisis of enormous proportions in the future.

“Illinois, Chicago, your suburb, don’t have the ability to print money,” she said. “This debt is collectively about $140 billion. That’s all the taxing bodies in Cook County combined.

“That’s more than $35,000 per household in the suburbs of Cook County and $87,000 in Chicago. Future generations aren’t going to be able to afford homes in Cook County because the property taxes are going to keep going up to pay the debt that’s owed.

“I feel its my obligation to sound the warning and give taxpayers the information they need to make intelligent decisions.”

But there’s always been a certain amount of debt that governments owe well into the future (pensions and bond payments) that seems staggering and insurmountable if looked at in the short term. With economic growth and normal increases in tax revenue, these debts can usually be paid off over time.

But the economic recession and the state’s financial crisis have created more severe problems that ought to make taxpayers take heed.

I’m a supporter of public education. But school budgets cannot continue to increase beyond the public’s ability to pay the costs.

And while many, perhaps most, suburbs have the resources to stay afloat during the next decade, there are some teetering on the verge of insolvency.

Making taxpayers aware of how their property tax money is being spent is a worthy goal, but I’m not convinced that the average person can have a significant impact on the financial viability of school districts or suburbs.

“I’m still refining the financial reporting process,” Pappas said. “We will continue to improve it over the years.

“But you have to start somewhere. And I’m determined to let people know how their tax money is being used.”



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