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posted: 7/9/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Use the new tool to help Cook taxpayers

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

If you're a Cook County taxpayer, did you spend any time with the 139-page special section county officials put together and inserted into the newspaper recently?

It really is required summer reading for homeowners in Cook County and something collar county officials ought to consider replicating.

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Just before property owners received the second installment of their tax bills, the special section arrived. Produced by the Cook County Treasurer's office, it provides a wealth of information about all our local governments -- and, boy, there are plenty of them -- their spending habits, their taxing habits, their debt, salary and pension funding.

We all like to complain mightily about those tax bills every year and how they always seem to be skyrocketing. This special section allows us to study the real data behind those bills.

Perhaps the greatest service provided in the reams of data is the line that shows what the taxing body's tax collection percentage change has been over the most recent 10-year period.

Suffice it to say, there are very virtually no taxing bodies that show a negative percentage change in the past 10 years.

The section looks daunting and should be improved in subsequent years with a table of contents and some help for readers who might not understand they live in a town (township) and a municipality, or who might not remember whether their community is a city or a village. Still, there's a wealth of information that can make all of us better informed citizens.

Taxpayers also can and should go online and enter their property index number listed on their property tax bill to get a detailed look just at the data for the many governments that tax them. That online look at your taxing bodies can be downloaded by going to cookcountytreasurer.com or cookcountypropertyinfo.com.

We report virtually every year that it's our school districts that make up the lion's share of our local tax bills, and this report confirms that with rich detail.

The education section shows page after page of elementary, high school, unit and community college districts with double- and some triple-digit percentage increases in tax levies over 10 years. For example, levies have risen more than 112 percent for the Elgin Community College district from $5.36 million in 2001 to $11.39 million in 2010. Wheeling Township District 21's levy rose nearly 74 percent over the past 10 years, and its pensions are funded at about 58 percent. Among Northwest suburban elementary districts, Des Plaines Elementary District 62's levy rose the most over 10 years by 78 percent, while Palatine Township Elementary District 15's rose the least by 18 percent.

Those are just a few examples of the enlightenment that can come from using this new tool.

If it doesn't motivate more of us to start attending meetings, pay more attention or speak up about the local governments closest to us, well then, shame on us.

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