Written by Austin Berg
Illinoisans are struggling to pay the highest property taxes in the nation, and that’s largely due to unfair overspending in local governments.
But you wouldn’t know it by asking your local elected officials. Especially not now.
“Free money” that local governments get from the state could be on the chopping block, and that means bureaucrats within Illinois’ nearly 7,000 taxing bodies would finally be held accountable for their spending choices.
Take Quincy, where Mayor Kyle Moore said that a property tax freeze and cuts to giveaways of state income tax dollars would necessitate cutting city services.
That’s a common chorus among local leaders. It’s a convenient excuse. And it’s an insult to families fighting to make ends meet. After all, Illinois is home to the second-worst income growth in the nation and a sluggish jobs market to boot.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at local government payrolls.
Forty percent of Quincy’s 330 full-time government employees cost taxpayers more than $100,000 a year in salary, health care and pension costs, according to the city’s total compensation report.
The city’s police and fire salaries have grown at twice the rate of household incomes over the past five years. Those salaries are now an astonishing 60 percent higher than the median household income in Quincy.
But it’s not just Quincy. Look in your backyard and you’re bound to find unfair spending.
Maybe your property taxes pay for Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Bob Miller, who makes $117,000 a year to manage 55 miles of highway while employing three family members with salaries of more than $90,000 each. Thankfully, frustrated voters took to the ballot box and narrowly elected Miller’s primary opponent on Feb. 28.
Maybe your property taxes pay for Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233 Superintendent Von Mansfield, who took home nearly $350,000 in total compensation in 2015 as the head of a school district that serves just one school. (Note: Over 80 percent of Illinois superintendents currently receive six-figure compensation packages.)
Maybe your property taxes pay for the inflated cost of public projects in Sangamon County, where the average annualized compensation package for workers who receive prevailing wages is over $110,000.
For each lavish salary funded by property tax dollars, keep in mind an Illinois family that is seriously underwater on their mortgage. Nearly 1 in 5 Illinois homeowners find themselves in this hellish position, according to realtytrac.com. That’s the second-highest share in the nation. Real property tax relief could mean the difference between keeping one’s home and losing it.
Of course, a majority of your property tax bill goes to your school district. Tax hike proponents say property taxes are so high because the state isn’t paying its fair share toward schools. But a look at the full spending picture shows something’s fishy.
In fact, when state and local spending are taken together, Illinois outranks all its neighbors and the entire Midwest in education spending per student. Taxpayers put in $13,000 per student in 2014. That’s 17 percent more than the next highest neighboring state, Wisconsin.
The real problem is that these dollars aren’t reaching the classroom. Instead, they go to exploding pension costs. And they go to an excessive number of school districts, each with costly administrators.
It’s not fair to kids. And it’s not fair to parents.
The reality is that Illinois’ local governments can save money by reining in local costs, which are being propped up by taxpayer money from Springfield.
Major reform is the only fair path forward. Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for such costly promises as they struggle to find opportunities of their own.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org