Great Article about Maria Pappas – Cook County Treasurer

| March 20, 2013

People & Places ran across this article about Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas. We found her insight extremely interesting. We also found the publishing of local government debt on tax bills to be an eye opener for many.   We must give credit for the article to Forbes Magazine and Larry Bell, Contributor. It was published back on 12-18-2012.

Cook County, Illinois Treasurer Warns U.S. Homeowners And Retirees Of Local Debt Hazards

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas

Maria Pappas has been Cook County Treasurer since 1998. Her office oversees the finances of the 19th largest government in the United States and collects more than $11 billion annually from property taxes on 1.8 million parcels. She served two terms as a Cook County Commissioner before becoming Treasurer.

While much public attention is directed to national, state and large-city debt issues, Treasurer Pappas warns homeowners and taxpayers to pay careful attention to mounting local public debt in their communities. She is in a solid position to know, having conducted studies of alarming debt conditions across her county’s approximately 2,200 taxing districts.

Larry Bell: Maria, over the course of our conversations, you have shared some very sobering realities and informative insights warranting serious consideration in bond issue voting, municipal investments, and retirement planning decisions. To begin, please give us a big picture of circumstances in your Chicagoland region that offer a general reference to local debt.

Maria Pappas: The picture isn’t pretty. Almost everyone’s focus is primarily upon finances of the federal or state governments. Few pay attention to local governments.

In May, 2012, the collective debt reported by the local primary taxing agencies in Cook County was more than $140 billion! To put that in context, the total debt-per-household in the City of Chicago was $87,720, and $35,774 in the suburbs. Since local governments cannot print money, they rely on property taxes as their main revenue source to operate.

Homeowners might be able to give their homes to their children, but that future generation won’t be able to afford to keep them because of the property taxes, which have doubled over a 10-year period.

Why wasn’t all of this bad news known well before you took action?

Nobody knew the numbers because local governments don’t like to show how badly they are doing!

I got tired of people stopping, calling and writing me with one simple question: “Why are my taxes going up?” So I asked the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2009 for a “Debt Disclosure Ordinance” authorizing my office to collect all this financial information that would provide the answers. Now, when these local governments report their numbers, taxpayers can easily find them on my website at

Maria, in the interest of ensuring agency budgetary transparency and accountability, how does your reporting system work?

It’s simple: by the last Tuesday in December, every taxing district uploads its data to a secure website. Voila! The information is immediately available for the public to view. The site enables taxpayers to then “drill down” into each agency listed on the bill.  Visitors can click an icon next to each agency and see budgeted revenues, the amount of money collected from the property owner, outstanding debt (including pensions), the 10-year levy history, and the percentage of levy change over 10 years. Visitors can also click a link to view the Annual Financial Report as provided by each taxing district in PDF format.

In July, 2012, Cook County published the debt information as an insert in several local newspapers. Now, my office is planning on providing financial data directly on the property tax bill so taxpayers can see the figures for the agencies that receive their share of the property tax.

But wouldn’t you expect the debt problems revealed in your data to be principally just a big city phenomenon?

Fiscal problems are a problem in every different type of local government: townships, villages, school districts, park districts, fire protection districts, sanitary districts, school districts, libraries and more. Taxpayers are on the hook for the debt that each of these governments continues to amass.

States overwhelmingly receive the majority of federal government money as compared to what is distributed to local governments.

The financial situation is bad right now for all local governments, no matter the size. I can’t imagine how future generations will be able to afford it.

Can you cite some specific examples where these local governments have troublesome debt?

In the City of Evanston, the population is 74,486. Evanston reported total debts of more than $331 million. Evanston’s pension obligations are another $388 million and its pension fund ratio is 47 percent.

The City of Berwyn reported $143 million in debt for a population of 56,657. Its pension liability is almost $160 million. The pension fund ratio is only 40 percent.

The Gail Borden Library in suburban Elgin reported $23.7 million in debt and another $11 million in pension liability.

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