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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

 

Breathing Fire

Feb 02, 2013

She signs her letters and emails "Dragon Lady" because she knows her tart tongue, mercurial mien and intimidating intellect make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Shouldn’t She Know Better?She’s run her office imperiously by tucking a chauffeur/bodyguard, a cleaning woman and two party planners in her budget under misleading job titles.

And she claimed multiple homeowner tax exemptions on property she and her husband owned when you’re allowed only one.

So Maria Pappas, the long-time Cook County treasurer, has taken some well earned hits from, among others, the Better Government Association.

But she’s also automated, downsized and, to a large extent, professionalized an office that was notoriously corrupt, inefficient, patronage-laden and mismanaged.

And she’s carried out some important transparency projects on behalf of taxpayers.

Consider the latest: After eight months of data collection and analysis, she’s giving property owners an unprecedented look at the perilous fiscal condition of the local governments that, in many cases, greedily collect and recklessly spend their hard-earned tax dollars.

City, county, suburbs, schools, parks, libraries, water districts, sanitary districts, mosquito districts, and on and on.

You can’t miss it because, for the first time, it’s right there on your new real estate tax bill.

And Pappas came up with a clever PR gambit to draw attention to the initiative a couple weeks ago: She emailed personalized copies of bills featuring the disturbing new details to several hundred members of news organizations and civic groups.

The rest of the county’s 1.7 million property owners got their bills this past week with the usual depressing tax news: How much we’re paying each unit of local government.

But now the bills also shine a bright and unflattering light on those government units themselves by listing the size of their budgets, the long-term debt they’ve accumulated, how little of the debt is supported by assets, and what percentage of their pensions are unfunded.

The bottom line is that most of our local taxing bodies are drowning in debt and mortgaged to the hilt.

Like shopaholics or credit card addicts, they’re spending too much and piling up too much debt, but not worrying about the taxpayers they’re sticking with today’s bills and tomorrow’s liabilities.

Scariest number? The cumulative debt of Cook County’s 2,000-plus taxing bodies: $140 billion!

The obvious implication? Fiscal stability will require more painful property tax hikes and spending cuts.

Many groups, including the BGA, have disseminated some of those numbing numbers before, but not with the wall-to-wall reach of a tax bill.

"I was stunned by the depth of the crisis for local governments," Pappas says. "If I were the Surgeon General I’d say that 75% of our governments are morbidly obese. This has to stop."

She is recommending painful diets to trim the bureaucratic blubber. And reminding us that behind the numbers are "real people who are being taxed out of their homes."

They’re struggling and juggling in this tough economy to manage family finances and pay their taxes, so "a few dollars more" isn’t a Clint Eastwood movie title—it’s a daunting challenge.

Dragon Lady is belching out a fiscal firestorm that can’t be ignored.

Now it’s our job--as taxpayers, voters and watchdogs--to make government extinguish the flames before we get burned financially beyond recognition.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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Anonymous
Does the cumulative debt of Cook County's 2,500 plus taxing bodies of $140 billion include their portion of the Teachers Retirement System of Illinois (TRS) pension plan? Because school districts fall under Cook County taxing bodies. An excellent source for TRS pension underfunding is Illinois Pension Scam by Bill Zettler.
2:05 PM Feb 4th
Mark Sulkin
I was surprised by the disclosure, but more so by the substantial increase in my taxes despite lower property values.What is missing is where the taxes are currently going.Previous tax bills showed what each taxing body was receiving,but now it appears to be a secret. What gives?
2:51 PM Feb 4th