Archaic tax formula leaves most suburbs wanting more

'Replacement' tax doles out money based on 35-year-old figures

Suburban Chicago would be almost unrecognizable to someone who hasn't been here in 35 years.

Yet, one thing that remains frozen in time is the distribution of funds from a lesser-known state tax that is based on how the suburbs looked in 1979.

Suburbs that were well-established at that time like Aurora, Elmhurst and Elk Grove Village benefit from the formula, while places that blossomed in the last few decades like Naperville, Schaumburg and Vernon Hills receive smaller payouts from the tax. The same is true for the libraries, parks and schools in those areas.

Governments in Cook County also get a disproportionate share of the revenue.

“If you're allocating dollars based on how Illinois looked 40 years ago, we're overdue for a change,” Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger said.

The Personal Property Replacement Tax generated more than $1.3 billion in 2014 through an income tax on the profits of businesses statewide. Thirty percent of that money — nearly $410 million — went to Chicago and to schools, the park district and community colleges within the city's borders.

By comparison, the other 498 Cook County government bodies shared just under $300 million among themselves.

Elsewhere in the suburbs, the pickings were slimmer. The 686 government agencies eligible for a share of the tax revenue in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties split less than 12.5 percent of the funds, or just under $171 million this year.

Critics argue businesses in the suburbs generate more of the revenue than is going back to the governments and schools in those towns.

“There's no real connection to the modern economy of the state,” said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending. “It's a weird formula that's decades outdated and a peculiarity of Illinois.”

The tax rewards stagnation. Some school districts that haven't expanded since the tax's inception are reaping the benefits of higher corporate income tax revenues, while school districts that have grown rapidly in recent years get less.

For instance, the 381-student Laraway Elementary District 70C in Joliet received more than $1.8 million from the tax in 2014, which translated to more than $4,800 per student. Meanwhile, Lake Villa Elementary District 41 received $82,652 in replacement tax revenues this year, less than $28 for each of its 2,953 students.

“They never accounted for any type of change,” said Patricia Volling, District 41's chief school business official. “Do we find it fair? No. But it's a very difficult challenge to change something that will be a benefit to some and a detriment to the others.”

As the name suggests, the tax was enacted to replace a property tax on business equipment that was eliminated in 1979. Corporations, small businesses, trusts, partnerships and even public utilities are charged rates between 0.8 and 2.5 percent on annual profits or investments.

Governments in Cook County receive 51.65 percent of the tax revenue to split among themselves, while all the other government agencies throughout the state split the remaining 48.35 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Legislators created a convoluted formula to determine each government body's share of the annual revenue pie. For those in Cook County, shares are based on the percentage of personal property taxes the agency received compared to all personal property taxes collected in 1976. For the rest of the state, shares were based on tax collections from 1977.

Since Chicago received 11.6 percent of all the state's personal property taxes collected in 1976, it receives 11.6 percent of the replacement taxes today, which amounted to $158.6 million in 2014. And Naperville — which was mainly cornfields and cattle in the 1970s but is the state's fifth-most populated city today — receives less than a tenth of a percent of the total tax revenue collected, just $436,968 this year. By comparison, Downers Grove's population is about one-third of Naperville's, but the town took in roughly $60,000 more in replacement taxes this year.

“We are a net exporter of dollars for the replacement tax,” Krieger said, but he added that a change would be difficult. “There would be significant pushback from Chicago legislators because they're currently getting a better deal than they deserve.”

At least Naperville is getting something. Because of the way the law is written, suburban governments that didn't levy a personal property tax in 1977 aren't eligible to collect replacement taxes today. That means the village of Schaumburg receives nothing from the myriad businesses headquartered there that contribute to the fund.

“It's kind of like spilled milk, I guess,” said Brian Townsend, Schaumburg's village manager. “There's no sense in dwelling on what we're not receiving.”

But it might be time to make some adjustments, tax policy experts and legislators agreed.

“Once a policy has been around 20 to 25 years, you really have to look at it to see if it's still relevant in the changed economy,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan government finance think tank. “It is unclear to me if the formula is still rational.”

State Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican, said an adjustment in how the replacement taxes are distributed could result in lower property tax levies in the suburbs, which are some of the highest in the country.

“If we had more (replacement) tax money come back to us, would we have such high property taxes?” Sullivan said. “It's a little backward with the Personal Property Replacement Tax where we are a net giver to such an extreme level. You should always have tax policy reviewed every decade, so yeah, we should take a fresh look at this.”

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