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Brown: City, suburban, Downstate property tax bills not equal when it comes to schools

Updated: July 17, 2013 7:04AM

Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, recently engaged his fellow state legislators in an interesting game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours.

Actually, Tryon did all the showing for both his and theirs — property tax bills, that is, and more important, the portion of those taxes that go to support public schools.

For instance, Tryon pointed out he paid $4,728 in property taxes last year to his local schools on a home valued by McHenry County officials at $235,000.

He compared that with Gov. Pat Quinn, who paid $2,222 in property taxes last year to Chicago Public Schools on a Galewood home with an estimated value of $290,000.

Then there was the West Lawn home of House Speaker Mike Madigan, which shows an estimated value of $342,000. Madigan paid $2,680 in property taxes to CPS, still nowhere close to what Tryon pays on a less valuable home.

The point Tryon was trying to illustrate will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with school funding and taxation in Illinois but always tends to run against the grain of conventional wisdom in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

“A residential piece of property in Chicago doesn’t share the same tax burden for education as a residential piece of property in the suburbs or Downstate,” Tryon explained.

Or even more plainly, Chicago residents don’t pay nearly as much in property taxes to support their schools as do other homeowners around the state.

Before any of my city readers get too riled up, I’m not saying you don’t pay enough in property taxes, especially with new tax bills just around the corner containing who-knows-what unpleasant surprises. I’m not that crazy.

Just the same, we’re going to need to have that civic discussion, especially with Mayor Rahm Emanuel this past week refusing to rule out the possibility he may seek to lift state-imposed tax caps to allow Chicago Public Schools to raise property taxes beyond the current limits.

Even without lifting the cap, there is a strong possibility of CPS looking to increase property taxes by as much as $84 million for next year — or right up to the limit allowed by law.

To exceed the tax caps, Chicago schools would need permission from the state Legislature — or from a referendum of Chicago voters, as is done in other local communities around the state.

And that’s where the disparity between what city residents pay for their schools versus what others pay starts to become an issue beyond the city’s borders.

Long a point of friction in any discussion of state support for education, the property tax disparity has become a rallying point for Republicans in Springfield on everything from bailing out the Chicago teachers pension fund to whether responsibility for teacher pensions outside the city should be shifted from the state to local school boards.

It was the cost shift issue that prompted Tryon to gather the data on the differences between the tax bills of Chicago politicians and other lawmakers. He’s not trying to raise Chicago property tax bills either, just trying to raise understanding that the issue of equitable school funding is more complicated than some would have you believe.

“People have to understand this,” Tryon said.

In case someone is unimpressed by such anecdotal information, here are some more examples:

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie paid $2,373 last year to Chicago schools on a Hyde Park home valued by tax officials at $317,000. Rep. Monique Davis paid $3,495 on a Morgan Park home valued at $338,000.

Compare that with two DuPage County legislators, Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst and Michael Fortner of West Chicago. Reboletti paid $3,651 in school taxes on a home valued at $283,000, while Fortner paid $4,543 toward his community’s schools on a $250,000 home.

To be clear, I consider these examples illustrative of the taxes paid by the public officials’ constituents and in no way meant to suggest they’re getting favorable treatment.

Reboletti and Fortner were among Republicans who took to the House floor on the final day of the Legislature to decry a failed attempt by Chicago schools to delay payments due the teachers pension fund.

They argued, among other things, that Chicago should hold a local property tax referendum if it needs money for its schools just as their communities do, an argument they promise to raise again if Emanuel seeks to lift the tax cap.

“The idea of the tax cap is: if you want to increase taxes more than a certain amount, you need the voters’ permission,” Fortner told me. “We deal with that all over the state.”

The general belief that Chicago voters would never approve a tax referendum has never seemed like a very good excuse not to have one.

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