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Local Column

Olson: What am I buying for $7,000?

There is nothing like when your property tax bill hits your mailbox.

It’s a single sheet of paper filled with obscure terms, tax rates stretched out to five decimal points (because four wasn’t intimidating enough) and a bold bottom line that tells you just how much it’ll cost you just for the privilege of living where you do this year.

I think Sycamore’s a fine town. I decided to buy a home there, and in so doing, I decided it was worth paying more than $580 a month in property tax.

But generally, when I’m shelling out more than $7,000 for something, I have a good idea what I’m getting. That’s not the way the property tax bills are set up.

It’s hard to understand how you’re being billed; there’s little detail about what you’re actually getting for your money.

A lot of us are emotionally divorced from this, because we pay the taxes incrementally as part of our mortgage payment. It seems to make it easier to swallow than if you have to sit down and write a check to the government.

But Illinois has some of the highest property tax rates in the country. Not coincidentally, we also have the most local governments in the country, about 7,000, way more than anyone else.

Here’s mine: My bill this year from DeKalb County Treasurer­ Christine Johnson is for $7,018.84. You can look up any tax bill from around the county online. They’re a matter of public record.

My bill is based on the assessed “fair market value” of my home as determined by Cortland Township Assessor Melodie Birdsell. There’s a township multiplier of 0.9093 that comes into play and makes my assessed value lower. Even so, the “fair market value” for the house in 2013 is $20,000 more than I paid for it in December 2012, for reasons that are not clear to me.

They then take one-third of that figure, subtract $6,000 because I live in the house – a deduction called the “homestead exemption,” – then multiply it by .1073529 to get the total tax.

See how simple that is?  

So what do my neighbors and I in “tax code CO10” get for our thousands of dollars? Eight different units of government, with nine different pension funds, all of which I can only assume are in fine shape, because I don’t have time to keep track of nine separate pension funds.

In all, there are 17 different charges on my bill this year. Not one of them says anything about what services the different governments provide, or how the money is used. It’s no wonder that people don’t have much understanding about how local governments work – nobody ever bothers to really tell them, even as they’re billing them thousands of dollars.

Details, please: What ought to be added to the tax bills is, at a minimum, a short description of where the money is going.

Beneath the one-word “County” entry, it could say that my $777.82 helps pay for services including courts, sheriff’s police, jail, county highways, a variety of social services, and salaries for elected officials and county employees.

The “Forest Preserve” entry could say that my $42.07 it goes to fund maintenance and programs at 16 different Forest Preserve District sites, greenways and trails in the county, and so on.

The “Cortland Township” and “Cortland Road & Bridge” entries should say that my $213.59 funds functions that should be absorbed by other governments, which could do them more efficiently and would have modern features like, say, a website.

Each pension tax line should also provide details about the number of people in the pension plan, and the percentage of its obligations that are funded.

That might make the tax bill cover more than one page, but it might also give regular people more of a sense about the services for which they’re paying.

At these prices, we deserve to know.

Schools will cost you: One thing that’s true on everyone’s tax bill is that the local schools cost more than anything else, and on my bill they’re almost 60 percent of the total, which is a pretty standard share.

The Illinois Constitution says that state government has the primary responsibility for funding public education, which theoretically should mean that they pay at least half the cost. But the state hasn’t done that for a very long time and it probably never will unless there are changes to how schools are funded in Illinois.

Public education is expensive, and if you value it – which ought to be the case in our communities – you have to pay for it.

But at least DeKalb County’s school districts are organized well.

Rather than having a tangle of elementary school districts, each with a cadre of administrators and its own curriculum, all feeding into a high school district with more administrators and curriculum, in DeKalb County the districts are “unit” districts, with the whole system under one leadership and presumably moving in one direction.

That’s smart organization. So fine, take my $4,168, and use it wisely, School District 427. I don’t want the value of my home to decline, which would only hurt my pocketbook and drive property tax rates higher.

The bottom line: There ought to be more to property tax bills than just the bottom line.

The system is confusing, the tab is high and people are not always sure just where their money is going. As a result, it’s easy to file the bill away and let our mortgage company handle the payments, or just grit your teeth and write a check.

But really, if we’re all required to contribute, we all ought to get some more detail about what we’re buying.

After all, government is one product that we’re compelled to buy without any option to return.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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