This is what paying the piper looks like.
Chicagoans have been hit up for higher taxes again and again in recent years, and they’re about to get hit up again. That’s depressing news, you bet, and it may test your fondness for living in the vibrant big city instead of some suburb.
But it is not unexpected news. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had hinted all along that another tax hike for the city’s public schools was likely, once he finished squeezing Springfield for more school money. And, regrettably, the hike is largely necessary. It is the price Chicago must pay for decades of past financial mismanagement. It is the price the city must pay for its future.
As unwelcome as higher taxes are, worse yet for Chicago and its public schools has been the damage done by constant borrowing and allowing unpaid pension obligations to pile up. A city that borrows to pay basic bills — spending money on interest payments instead of hiring cops or teachers — is a city living on borrowed time.
The school funding bill approved by the Illinois House and Senate this week allows the Chicago Board of Education to increase its property tax levy by 5 percent, which works out to a 2.5 percent property tax increase overall for the average homeowner. If the entire state-approved increase is levied, as school officials tell us it will be, it will generate an additional $125 million for the school district.
Even with that additional property tax revenue — and even after taking into account $328 million in extra state money provided for Chicago’s schools this year — the district’s $5.7 billion budget won’t be balanced. We’re not sure how big the gap will be, though we have asked, and the mayor and CPS have yet to say where the money might come from. They like to roll out bad news slowly, on their own schedule, with plenty of spin.
So we have a suggestion: Tax the rich. Or, to put the matter less fliply, we would urge Emanuel to revisit a plan to raise taxes on downtown businesses and high net-worth individuals to fill the hole in CPS’ budget. Neighborhood folks are taking enough of a hit, and downtown is booming.
If you live in Chicago, you’re now paying a 29.5 percent water bill tax. You’re paying a bag tax of 7 cents. You’re paying a soda pop tax of a penny an ounce throughout Cook County. You’re paying a garbage collection tax of $9.50 a month. And you’re paying your share of $838 million in property tax hikes since 2015 — even before this latest CPS tax hike.
Maybe, after this, it’s somebody else’s turn, right?
What is Chicago getting in return? The city’s four major pension funds are being more sufficiently funded than they have been in years, and the public schools, too, soon could be in far better financial shape. This is responsible financial stewardship.
Then again, this being Chicago, we’re never quite sure when a financial crisis is over. City Hall says the school funding bill passed by the Legislature, soon to be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, will pull CPS out of a nosedive, but nobody’s predicting clear skies forever.
Will this latest tax hike for CPS be the end of it, or will further tax hikes be necessary fairly soon down the line?
CPS will be in a “stronger place,” said a CPS spokewoman, and that will make a future tax “less likely.”
That’s not entirely reassuring, but honest. It beats playing pretend, which was Chicago’s game for far too long.
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