"According to the Cook County Clerk's office, the budgets for all Chicago agencies increased by nearly $75.5 million over the previous year. Practically all of the increase was concentrated in the levies of the Chicago Public Schools. The increase in the tax rate was due to the decline in property values and the increase in levies..."
Two seemingly unrelated events dominated Chicago news at midyear 2013 and underscored the deteriorated condition of local government and the economy. The first bombshell fell In early spring, when the Chicago Board of Education announced that it was closing 50 underutilized schools and furloughing 1,742 teachers and 1,387 other staff members.
The second shoe to drop — real estate tax bills — arrived in the mail at the end of June. Always a source of trauma, this year's notices delivered an unexpectedly heavy blow in the form of a 17 percent tax rate increase.
If Chicagoans fail to demand action from state lawmakers and municipal leaders to address the budget shortfalls driving these dire measures, economic recovery threatens to elude the city for years to come. But the first step toward change is to understand the funding crises behind the news.
Shrinking values, expanding budgets
Two factors that determine real estate taxes are the total value of all property within the boundaries of the taxing district, and the tax rate. In Chicago, declining property values mean taxing entities would need to increase the tax rate from previous years in order to generate the same amount of revenue collected in those years. Unfortunately, local government budgets have grown, requiring even more revenue and driving up the tax rate even further.
By law, all properties within the city of Chicago must be revalued once every three years. The most recent tax bills were based on the revaluation completed in April 2013. That revaluation determined that the aggregate value of real estate in downtown Chicago had declined 7.5 percent since the previous valuation, and values in the residential neighborhoods had dropped between 14 percent and 20 percent.
According to the Cook County Clerk's office, the budgets for all Chicago agencies increased by nearly $75.5 million over the previous year. Practically all of the increase was concentrated in the levies of the Chicago Public Schools. The increase in the tax rate was due to the decline in property values and the increase in levies.
An office building just west of the Loop's financial district illustrates a typical tax impact on a commercial property. The 10-year-old, 400,000-square-foot building was originally revalued at 20 percent more than the prior year's valuation. After appealing, the value was finally set at a 1 percent increase, but because of the increase in rate, the tax bill increased to approximately $3,196,900, up by $343,200 over the prior year's bill of approximately $2,852,700.
A study in schools
Why the increase in school district taxes? After a stormy negotiation period, the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union agreed on a new three-year contract that was ratified by all parties in December 2012. A few months later, the board announced 50 school closures and faculty layoffs.
The schools scheduled for closing were almost exclusively located in the poorer sections of the city where gang activity and indiscriminate shootings have proliferated. Parents are concerned about the safety of their children, and they have mounted strong opposition to the closings. Some have filed a lawsuit attacking the legality of the closings.
The board is blaming a $1 billion budget deficit for the budget cuts and the personnel layoffs. Pension costs alone have increased by $400 million to a total of $612 million for this year, and along with the new teachers' contract have contributed mightily to the deficit.
In 2011, Moody's Investors Service calculated the unfunded liabilities for Illinois' three largest state-run pension plans to be $133 billion. There can be no doubt that that number has increased significantly over the last year and a half. Like the U.S. Congress, the Illinois Legislature has been unable to make the tough decisions necessary to fund the pension deficits. In desperation, the governor has ordered that the salaries of the Legislature be withheld until they can agree on a pension plan. The response of the Legislature was not to address pensions but to file a suit against the governor on the grounds that his order was unconstitutional.
In addition to the board of education's pension problems, according to a local newspaper, the City of Chicago must make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 percent and 25 percent of their respective liabilities. Without an agreement with the state, the deficit could rise to $1.15 billion in 2016.
Chicago has suffered greatly from the recession. Over the last 25 years, the aggregate value of real estate in the Central Business District has never before declined in a revaluation. Since 2009, however, the vacancy rate for office buildings in the Loop has stubbornly hovered around 15 percent, squeezing property cash flows and asset values. These conditions will continue until the city's unemployment rate of 9.8 percent declines significantly.
The increased tax rates and the school closings have coalesced into tangible issues to which Chicagoans could respond, but they are only symptomatic of much deeper problems that must be addressed. If left unaddressed, tax rate increases and layoffs will become an annual occurrence.