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updated: 11/23/2012 5:56 AM

Editorial: Shift tax focus to local elections

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

Taxes always play a big role during national and state elections. When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated whether Bush-era income tax cuts should be continued, there were impassioned arguments on both sides.

But while the president's policies can have an impact on your pocketbook, local governmental bodies -- schools, cities, townships -- can take a surprisingly large bite. Yet, interest in local elections is never as broad and sweeping as those for higher office.

Here we are, though, with a local election looming next spring. In some towns, filing began Monday for elective office -- for example, 10 candidates filed the first day for Naperville City Council. Next month, candidates must declare their intentions to seek office for school, village and township boards. And when they do, we urge voters to pay attention and ask the hard questions on where candidates stand when it comes to property taxes.

As Daily Herald writer Jake Griffin reported Wednesday in his Suburban Tax Watchdog column, local governments in the suburbs and in Chicago increased their property tax levies by $3.5 billion in 2010 compared to 2005 numbers.

Of those, schools accounted for $2.2 billion of that increase. Townships collected $60 million more and the six county governments in the metropolitan area combined to increase the tax levies by almost $90 million. Municipalities increased the levies by $762 million and other governmental bodies, such as libraries and park districts, accounted for $365 million of the increase.

Do you know the people making those decisions? Do you know what your township even does? Those are questions voters need to explore, through the pages of this newspaper, on our website and through other means as well. And you need to vote. In some local elections, turnout is lucky to hit 20 percent, an embarrassingly low number considering the stakes.

Griffin points out that most tax experts blame rising pension obligations and contractually mandated personnel costs as the chief cause for property tax levy hikes. Some of that can be placed at the feet of state government, as Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Larry Frang told Griffin.

But critics also point to local governments and school boards that approve large raises to retiring employees which spike their pension costs as reasons as well. So while you may have paid attention to who ran for the state legislature in November, it's equally important to know who wants to make decisions down the street at the school office.

"It shows how important it is for taxpayers to pay attention to the budgets of school districts, which is usually two-thirds of their tax bill," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.

Election Day is April 9 for local nonpartisan races. You have time to do your homework.

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