Nobody wants to see higher property taxes in Cook County. But a resolution to be presented to the County Board Wednesday that would put commissioners on record as opposed to any property tax hike in 2016 is precisely the sort of short-sighted move that has made a mess of government finances in this state for decades.
When writing up a budget, whether for a household or a government, expenses and revenues must be considered together, with hard decisions then made on both ends. It would be irresponsible to declare a freeze on revenue without giving careful consideration to any and all looming expenses and debt — of which there will significant increases for the county in 2016. A pension funding shortfall must be dealt with, and union contracts are up for renewal.
The dangerous result of an absolute property tax freeze this early in the game — budget talks begin in late summer — might not be laudable belt-tightening but more foolhardy deficit spending and borrowing. At every level of government in Illinois, we’ve seen what a disaster that can lead to.
County government has a pretty good fiscal steward in President Toni Preckwinkle. The days when former County Board President Todd Stroger would raise taxes first and figure out later how to spend the money are long gone. To now make essentially the opposite mistake — freeze spending without any thought to financial obligations — would be equally damaging. Bond rating agencies like to see that a government can and will pay its bills.
County property taxes aren’t always easy to spot, because they are lumped together on the same tax bills as schools, municipalities and numerous other units of government. In general, property taxes have been heading steadily upward, but the county hasn’t increased its property tax levy since 1994.
In fact, Preckwinkle’s administration has trimmed expenses by $465 million over five years. The sales tax rollback has saved taxpayers $1.5 billion. And Preckwinkle is in the process of finding new places to trim, as she has done each year, often over the protests of other elected county officials. That’s the smarter way to keep costs in line and taxes down.
Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, who also is the Illinois Republican Party chairman, says he worries that higher property taxes will force people out of their homes and businesses out of the county. But that’s an argument for good overall fiscal management. A tax freeze is no silver bullet solution.
Preckwinkle says she would consider a property tax increase in 2016 only as a last resort, and we sure hope she avoids one. But deciding nine months in advance to freeze property taxes is no solution to anything.