Every Chicago household’s share of local govt. debt: $63,525
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org June 21, 2011 11:56AM
Updated: September 29, 2011 12:26AM
Calling local government debt “staggering,” Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas announced Tuesday that the $108 billion debt tab across various governing bodies in the county translates to $63,525 per Chicago household and nearly $33,000 per suburban household.
The data, collected thanks to a beefed up county ordinance on debt disclosure, includes a first-time detailed look at pension liabilities for Cook County municipalities and taxing districts reported, which total more than $50 billion. The unfunded pension liabilities add up to $25 billion — nearly a quarter of the overall debt countywide.
“We knew that debt and unfunded pension obligations were serious problems at the state and federal level and assumed that a similar pattern would follow at the local level. But, quite frankly, I was stunned by the depth of the crisis for local governments,” Pappas said in a statement on the Treasurer’s website.
Lawrence Msall, president of the tax watchdog group Civic Federation, said his board just received the report and couldn’t provide an analysis of the numbers, but said the numbers help residents ask better questions about how their elected leaders spend hard-earned tax dollars.
“We applaud the treasurer for making the effort and making public the first time the detailed information on pension liabilities for the more than 500 units of local government,” Msall said. “Citizens can take this information and ask elected officials about what they plan to do about the growing liabilities and underfunded pension systems. I think what’s clear is it’s enormously expensive to have so many service districts that provide in some cases duplicate or overlapping services.”
Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who chairs the board’s pension committee, said: “The issue is that people are aware of the city’s pension debt or the county’s pension debt or the state’s pension debt, what they’re not aware of is the village council township or a library township that has both debt and pension liabilities that taxpayers are responsible for.
“In a lot of parts of the state we don’t need these governmental bodies who handle one or two functions — they’re hangovers, and that’s true here [in Cook County] from when this area was more rural.”
Getting rid of some of these taxing districts would be handled at the state level, but Gainer said it’s something she supports as she looks at vital services being slashed to cover unfunded pension liabilities.
“There was once a time when they made sense,” she said, “but now when we’re choosing between laying off teachers or merging and reducing health-care services, these unnecessary governments need to be on the table.”