During this past year, the nation has focused on our mounting federal debt (the “Fiscal Cliff”). In addition, we have frequently updated you on Illinois’ version of “debt free fall” – meriting our state the distinction of a new credit rating downgrade and becoming recognized by most experts as the nation’s least financially sound state.
All of this attention placed at the federal and state levels has tended to distract focus from local government debt—perhaps because local governments don’t generally publicize their mounting debt load and (in Cook County) the local “tax bill” comes out just twice a year.
Because local governments have escaped the intense scrutiny directed toward federal and state government, they have (largely) been enabled to incur additional debt without great resistance – passing along all increased costs to taxpayers. The result has been that, during the past ten years, Cook County property taxes have doubled (yes, doubled!).
Fortunately, one official has very effectively addressed this lack of local government financial transparency. The Cook County Treasurer, Maria Pappas, secured authority from the Cook County Board in 2009 to solicit (require) full financial disclosure from all 2,200 Cook County taxing bodies (by mid-2012). As a result, the County Treasurer’s website now provides the data she has accumulated and aggregated (www.cookcountrytreasurer.com).
Any taxpayer who accesses that site can drill down to find the relevant data from each government agency listed on her/his tax bill—including outstanding debt (operating debt and pension debt), a ten year tax levy history, the percentage of change in that levy, total budgeted revenue, and the amount of taxes collected.
I highly recommend that all Cook County taxpayers access this site as soon as possible and check on those entities that govern and assess taxes in their community! You may be relieved or you may be appalled. In either case, you do need to know, because you are “on the hook” for any/all obligations those agencies accumulate!
Let me offer two quick examples, as well as an “average” figure for Chicago and suburban Cook County. The City of Evanston (home to the bowl-winning Northwestern Wildcats) accumulated $331 million in general debt and an additional $388 million for pension debt liability. That means that each of its 74,486 citizens owe $4,444 on general debt and $5,209 on unfunded pension obligations! Relatively speaking, those living in Berwyn (population 56,657) carry a lighter load of $2,594/person for general debt and $2,824/person on unfunded pension liability! From a slightly different view (looking at debt/household) the average Chicago debt/household level stands at $87,720, while the equivalent average debt/household level in the suburbs is $35,774!
Treasurer Pappas expressed the ramifications of this mounting debt load eloquently: “Homeowners may be able to give their homes to their children, but that future generation won’t be able to afford to keep them because of the property taxes!... I can’t imagine how future generations will be able to afford it.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrybell/2012/12/18/cook-county-illinois-treasurer-warns-u-s-homeowners-and-retirees-of-local-debt-hazards/