Why would scores of Illinois police pension board members be spending tax dollars in Wisconsin?
Why is the Lake County Board of Review offering settlements for cases already sent to the state's property tax appeal board?
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What's in Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' online warehouse of local government financial data?
These topics are just some of the questions, tips and suggestions readers have sent in the past several months. From time to time, we present that information as something we've dubbed watchdog kibble. Here's the latest dishful.
Members of police pension fund boards from across Illinois will gather for a taxpayer-funded conference in October -- in Wisconsin.
Illinois Police Pension Fund Association officials say they'll spend the money at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva because Illinois venues cost too much.
"It's cost-prohibitive to have it anywhere else," IPPFA Membership Director Tony Halachoulis said. "We get free parking up there where it would cost $40 a night or more to do this in Chicago."
IPPFA officials said the conference allows board members to complete some or all of the 16 hours of training required each year to be a member of the board. However, the association's website also indicates the training is available throughout the year at sites around the state as well as online or at the group's state convention in May, held this year in Springfield.
There are more than 600 local police and fire pension programs in Illinois, all independent of one another.
The pension fund -- and ultimately taxpayers -- cover the $138-per-night hotel cost at the Grand Geneva Resort, as well as the $295-a-person early bird conference fee. That adds up to $3,500 for three nights for each board if all five members attend.
That doesn't take into account the golf outing on the first day that costs $90 per person, which can be covered by the pension fund, according to organizers.
Pension fund board members from Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Indiana also attend the conference, Halachoulis said.
"It's helpful in that a lot of things happening to pension funds in other states will happen in Illinois or vice versa," Halachoulis said.
Two members of each police pension fund board are sworn officers. Halachoulis said it's up to individual police departments how they handle the time off. Most departments treat it as a training day, he said.
Wood Dale Police Chief Greg Vesta said sending officers won't lead to overtime costs because it was planned far enough ahead.
"If it creates a staffing shortage ... we'd have someone adjust their schedule to cover those days," Vesta said. "For any type of training we try to avoid any overtime."
Vesta noted that any overtime costs incurred would not be reimbursed by the pension fund.
It's been more than a year since Derek Monroe sent off documents to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board arguing for a reduction on the assessment of his Round Lake Beach home.
The state appeal board is the last stop on a property owner's journey to lower the property tax bill when attempts at the township or county level fail. It can take two years or longer for those state appeals to be heard due to a backlog of requests. So, Monroe was a little surprised when he received an email earlier this month with a settlement offer.
Except the offer wasn't coming from the state board. It was coming from the Lake County Board of Review, which had offered Monroe only a slight reduction previously.
Monroe is seeking an $8,539 reduction of his assessed value. In the recent email, the Lake County Board of Review was offering a $4,529 reduction -- a little more than half of what he was seeking. There was no rationale given for the offer, just a rundown of Monroe's original assessment figure, his requested reduction and the board of review's new settlement offer.
"That is outright bizarre," he said. "It is like someone spent about 30 seconds on the issue and arbitrarily decided to halve the amount claimed." Monroe said he repeatedly asked for the county's analysis but never received any.
But Martin Paulson, the county's chief assessment officer and clerk for the board of review, said much more effort went into the settlement offer than simply splitting the difference.
He said the board received notices of about 1,200 Lake County appeals pending at the state level. In an attempt to whittle the state board's work down, the county's board of review re-examined the cases to see if any could be settled. "To see if there's something different we're seeing now than we did before," Paulson said.
"If we do see that there's probably good reason to come to an agreement on a case, then we are proactive in reaching out rather than sending more information down there and let things drag out for another year," he said.
Paulson said the offer could have been made because more "market evidence" exists now than when the original appeal was made by Monroe. Paulson did not explain why the county's offer lacked supporting documentation but said his office would contact Monroe to explain the board of review's settlement offer.
"We'll talk him through the process," he said.
Monroe, however, said he will take his chances with the state appeal board.
Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' website has not-so-quietly become a clearinghouse for local government financial data.
Two years ago, Pappas heralded the release of a countywide government debt disclosure study gleaned from hundreds of reports local government bodies are required to provide her office. Since then, Pappas has compiled detailed financial information at cookcountytreasurer.com for all of those agencies.
Pappas said the purpose of compiling the data is to help taxpayers learn more about what their taxes are paying for.
In addition to debt details, visitors can find contact information for every taxing body in the county as well as the district's property tax levy, operating revenue budget amount, number of full-time employees, pension obligations, average salary rate increase and a copy of the agency's most recent audit.
Coupled with County Clerk David Orr's website that keeps detailed annual property tax levy reports, access to local government financial information in Cook County is arguably better than anywhere else in the suburbs. While websites for county clerks in Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties keep property tax levy information online, too, there is no clearinghouse in those counties like Pappas has. DuPage County Clerk Gary King does not keep property tax levy reports on his website.