Schools always take the biggest chunk of property taxes, making up roughly 70 percent of a suburban property owner's tax bill.
So when tax rates for 84 suburban school districts average 10 percent higher than last year, it's easy to suspect the schools are getting similar increases in tax revenue.
But that's not the case.
Illinois school districts could raise the total taxes they collect by only 2.7 percent this year, the rate of inflation, unless they had voters' approval to go higher.
So why did so many people see their taxes jump way beyond that? Because there's no cap on what property owners can be charged.
In this economy, even those whose property assessment was reduced often ended up paying higher taxes. That's because the value of surrounding property also dropped, pushing tax rates higher.
The impact is felt the most by those who didn't see as significant a drop in their property values as others did.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Roland Ley, president of Taxpayers United of Northwest Cook County. "In order to lower your taxes you have to take a big drop in your property value. But if you don't want your property value to drop you've got to pay higher taxes. It's a damned if you do and if you don't thing."
One of the clearest examples came in Huntley Unit District 158, where the school tax rate spiked 20 percent for Kane County taxpayers and nearly 17 percent for their McHenry County brethren. While the majority of properties in the vast school district declined in value, those property owners didn't see a tax break unless their property value dipped more than 15 percent, according to the district's website. Owners whose property value declined by 5 percent still saw an increase on their tax bill of between 11 percent and 14 percent, the report shows.
Mark Altmayer, District 158's chief financial officer, said bigger declines in the property values of the larger McHenry County portion of the school district resulted in about $1 million of the tax burden being shifted onto the district's Kane County residents.
"People were outraged, and they're continuing to be outraged," Altmayer said.
The resulting kerfuffle has assessment officials on both sides of the county line pointing fingers and blaming one another for the tax woes of their constituents.
Angry taxpayers aren't confined to District 158.
Even though school districts didn't get a tax windfall, only one of the school districts examined in six counties -- Diamond Lake Elementary District 76 in Lake County -- actually asked for less money than the year ago.
Ley and other critics don't believe school districts should accept any increase in tax revenue because of the poor state of the economy.
"We don't want these schools and other taxing bodies to not share in our pain," he said.
The Arlington Heights resident has a beef with Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and the tax dollars it gets from him.
He's already seen his tax bill spike, aided by a 12.4 percent increase in the district's tax rate. Now, District 214 officials plan to borrow $20 million for unspecified "maintenance and repair projects" while carrying a hefty reserve, Ley complained.
"It gives me alarm because I know it translates to more taxes," Ley said.
District 158 is collecting $1.5 million more in taxes than last year's $59.2 million levy. Wood Dale Elementary District 7, where taxpayers saw an 18.5 percent increase to the district's tax rate, will collect around $200,000 more. Both District 158 and District 7 were among several school districts that froze pay across the board over the last few years. School officials say they need the additional revenue to continue operating.
"We need it to keep going," said Mark Bertolozzi, Wood Dale Elementary District 7's business manager. "Whether it's employment costs, health care, the cost to light and heat our buildings, it's always going up."
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