Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, in an effort to highlight the amount of information she is now making available about taxes on the Internet, placed a 139-page insert inside today's printed copies of the Daily Herald distributed in Cook County.
"Read Your Tax Bill," released by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, details how each of the 550 tax agencies in the county has raised its property tax levies in a decade, as well as how well municipalities are funding their own employee pensions.
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Pappas said her compilation of tax data is the first of its kind in the nation and that it was inspired by a very fundamental reason: "Because everyone comes to me and says, 'Why are your Cook County property taxes so high?'"
Beginning today, taxpayers can visit Pappas' website at cookcountytreasurer.com and view their taxing districts' financial statements by entering their own 14-digit Property Index Numbers.
Clicking on a "plus" sign next to any governmental body calls up an easy-to-read table with information on the taxing district's budgets, debt, pension liabilities, and how its levy has changed over the last 10 years.
If you don't know your PIN, you can locate it through a few clicks of the mouse. Though it does take an investment of a few minutes to figure out how to access the data, after that the process is simple.
Studying the printed version of the data turned up big differences in how much tax levies have grown over the years, and in the degree to which municipalities lag in funding pension liabilities. Conversations with a number of Northwest suburban officials highlighted that many factors can play into the discrepancies in the numbers from one government body to another.
For example, Schaumburg's municipal property tax levy went up 1,158 percent from 2000 to 2010. That news is not, however, as shocking as it may appear. The village did not impose a general property tax until the end of the decade.
Among other Northwest suburban municipalities, Inverness was near the top end with a 287 percent increase and Rosemont had an 11 percent increase, the lowest in the area.
Prior to 2001, Schaumburg collected only $2.1 million, the result of a few special service taxing areas. After the village enacted its first overall general property tax in 2010, the village's collection was $26.4 million.
Inverness Village Administrator Curt Carver said from at least 1997 until 2005, the village froze its property tax levy each year, but spent down its reserves to cover the cost of police services. But when that was recognized as unsustainable, the village began tying police costs to its property tax. The village more recently issued bonds for extensive road improvements.
Hoffman Estates had the second lowest increase among municipalities in the Northwest suburbs at 35 percent. Village Manager Jim Norris said the suburb has the benefit of diversified revenue sources, like sales taxes and food and beverage taxes, to keep it from having to rely exclusively on its property tax.
"For the first five of those years, we were riding a very robust development curve," Norris said. And while Hoffman Estates recently built a new police station, it began the project just as some old debt was being retired.
Among Northwest suburban school districts, Des Plaines District 62's levy rose the most at 78 percent from 2000 to 2010, while Palatine Township Elementary District 15 raised its the least at 18 percent.
Among Northwest suburban park districts, Barrington Countryside, which is only partly in Cook County, topped the list at 143 percent; the Des Plaines Park District came in lowest, with a 24 percent increase.
Pappas said her figures come directly from the taxing bodies themselves, in response to her request for information.
"I didn't change a comma, a period, nothing," she said.
That, some say, has created an apples vs. oranges situation in comparing how well municipalities fund their public pensions -- which in theh report range from a low among Northwest suburbs of 40 percent in Barrington Hills to a high of 72 percent in Wheeling.
Officials in some municipalities said the pension liability data they provided reflects only their contributions to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund for office workers; others said theirs reflected contributions to police and firefighter pensions as well.
Schaumburg Village Manager Ken Fritz said local pension funding fluctuates with the market, and that Schaumburg was at 100 percent before the recession. Even now, the village's 67 percent is enough to cover retirees, he said, and will improve as the market does.
"Schaumburg's never missed a pension payment," Fritz said.
Norris said Hoffman Estates is also governing its pensions responsibly, though he thinks the 68 percent in the insert reflects only its IMRF liability.
Pappas said her office spent a year compiling the data.
"This is my legacy," she said.
Pappas's data stops in 2010, but 2011 figures are now available at the Cook County clerk's website, www.cookcountyclerk.com, as well as those of each individual taxing body.