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Column: Twitter exchange with Cook County assessor sums up outrage and exodus: Tax hikes are paying for debt, not services.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by KRISTEN MCQUEARY

Over the weekend, while most of us powered through a collective turkey coma, the Cook County assessor’s office engaged in an entertaining Twitter exchange with a taxpayer who joked about her property tax payment.

“My banking app just flagged my Cook County property tax payment as ‘possible theft or fraud’ and they really do not know how right they are,” tweeted Emily Zanotti, a local writer and editor with a Twitter following of more than 57,600 users. Zanotti generally tweets about politics, culture, Catholicism and her babies — don’t miss the babies — but on Saturday, she hit a nerve with Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office while tweeting about taxes.

Cook County’s second installment property tax payment, collected through an escrow account, had been transferred out of her bank, triggering an automatic fraud alert due to its size. Several hours after her tweet, a communications staffer for the assessor replied defensively: “Your local schools, parks, and libraries — not to mention your police and fire departments — are grateful for your payment.”

Zing!

Not really, though. Let’s break it down.

The typical retort when taxpayers gripe about taxation is to point out the services rendered in exchange. Public schools, public safety, park districts and libraries largely are funded through local property taxes. So quit your whining.

But that isn’t the whole story in Illinois, Chicago or Cook County, where property tax hikes levied and collected increasingly are being swallowed up by pension costs for retired workers, health care costs for active workers and debts accumulated to patch up unbalanced budgets. Property owners and income tax payers are getting the same or fewer services while their tax bills climb and their property values remain stagnant.

Why?

Unchecked spending throughout government is one reason. Those “budget gaps” that elected officials have to fill each year typically represent a mismatch between spending and revenue the year before. Since when did the city or state pass a truly balanced budget? Who knows.

Acquiring debt is too cavalier a process in most government spending bills. The state’s $45 billion capital spending plan, approved last spring, includes money toward a highway interchange for a Peotone airport, pickleball courts, dog parks and bike paths. Meanwhile the state is sitting on a pile of $5.8 billion in bills it cannot pay, and its combined unfunded pension liability climbed recently to $137 billion.

Add to all this a shrinking tax base. Moving vans aren’t hurtling toward Illinois. Not only is the exodus of residents real, it has morphed into depressed property values across the state. Stay here and you’ll continue to pay higher taxes to prop up a broken system, or leave and get socked on your single greatest investment, your home.

An Illinois Policy Institute report last year found that less than 50 cents of every new dollar paid in property taxes across the state between 1996 and 2016 went toward services. Pension obligations and worker benefits, along with bond and interest payments from borrowing — not new park district programs or additional police officers or equipment at the library — are swallowing up the increases in tax hikes. .

If you live in Chicago, the shortage of promised pension and health care benefits just within Chicago Public Schools is $13.2 billion. Add to that $28.9 billion in promised, but not funded, pension and health care benefits at the city of Chicago. Add to that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Cook County and its forest preserves, Chicago’s community college system and, for good measure, your local mosquito abatement district. Yes, even mosquitoes are biting taxpayers with pension and debt costs. (See what I did there?)

Cook County residents can find more information about accumulated government debts at Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ website, cookcountytreasurer.com.

That’s why Zanotti’s tweet drew thousands of replies, retweets and affirmations. Taxation here is not as simple as paying for schools, ambulances and baseball fields. It’s a shakedown exercise: Pay more for decades of irresponsible spending, expect less and be quiet about it, won’t you?

Kristen McQueary is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.



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