Daily Herald opinion: The public can go only so far in accepting late property tax bills

This editorial is the consensus opinon of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

There was a time in Cook County, and not so long ago, that late property tax bills were so common that taxpayers could count on not having to cough up their second installment until the end of the year, and municipalities, schools and other taxing districts were routinely forced into short-term borrowing to cover expenses they needed the county distributions to pay.

When she took office in 2010, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recognized that undisciplined spending and bill paying created distrust and disfavor, and among her moves to restore the county's record and reputation was an insistence that bills get out on time. For years, they did.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a technology upgrade in the Cook County assessor's office, and suddenly, taxpayers and taxing districts find themselves with a queasy discomfort they thought had become a thing of the past.

One late cycle — the second installment of 2021 — could grudgingly be viewed as a glitch, a mishap, a one-time anomaly. A second, the announcement earlier this year that second-installment tax bills will be late for the second year in a row, has a more annoying, a more dismaying feel, the sense that a habit may be forming.

Last week, Preckwinkle told reporters that tax bills would be sent and the money distributed “by the end of the calendar year.” That's good to hear, if not entirely comforting, and an additional announcement — of an arrangement with PNC Bank to help some of the neediest taxing districts manage the financial complications forced on them — is also a welcome development, at least so long as we acknowledge that hundreds of taxing districts that won't meet hardship qualifications will still be required to spend money they shouldn't have to in order to meet their obligations.

But what remains disquieting were statements from Preckwinkle and county staff members indicating that technical issues said to be at the root of these delays remain to be solved.

Anyone whose company has gone through a computer “upgrade” is abundantly familiar with the unpredictable disruptions that seem inevitably to occur. So, to a degree, the issues Assessor Fritz Kaegi points to regarding the massive technology transition involving his office, the Board of Review, and the county treasurer and clerk's offices may be understandable. But ongoing tension between the assessor and the Board of Review, and the political inclinations of all the key players to minimize their responsibility and maximize that of others, seem nothing more than counterproductive.

“Finger pointing and name calling isn't helpful in that process,” Preckwinkle said months ago of the transition, “and I've told the actors involved that directly.”

We hope that means she intends to hold them all accountable and they're prepared to meet expectations she set a decade ago. When a glitch becomes a habit, the public's patience wears thin. We'd all be much more confident to hear officials demonstrate a firm commitment that we won't be back repeating these same complaints a year from now.

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