New county website shows how much local governments owe
Officials in Cook County, Ill., are pushing the envelope of government transparency. A new website developed by the county treasurer allows taxpayers to see the amount of debt their town or township owes, along with average salary increases and the total tax levy over the last decade, according to the Chicago Tribune.
On the website, homeowners can find information on any agency that gets a share of property taxes. The website contains data collected from most of the 553 taxing agencies in Cook County, including Chicago, suburbs, school and fire districts, libraries and parks. Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas said it is the first such site in the country, according to the Tribune.
The new figures are part of a website introduced this year to put property tax assessments and other information in one place. Pappas said records show that local governments at all levels have more than $140 billion in total debt.
Taxpayers can access the information by entering their Property Index Number (PIN) or the name of their taxing district. That allows them to download recent financial statements, which the districts are required to submit under a county ordinance.
But taxpayers might need help figuring out the complex pages of financial data. County officials emphasized that all government debt is not the same. Pappas estimates, for example, that about $34 billion of local government debt in Cook County is due to pensions and health care costs for current and future retirees. Other debt pays for essential functions like road building and sewer repair.
“We all know that sometimes debt… is a good thing,” County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who helped unveil the new website, told the newspaper. “If you are in a community in which there is tremendous public debt, that might be a long-term concern to you.”