A special project by Contributor John Guevara, with Managing Editor Shane Nicholson
Two weeks ago, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items. This week, we look at No. 3, “Reasonable tax burden.”
It was a Republican, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” The question remains, is the society taxpayers are buying civilized? Put another way, is our tax burden reasonable?
One Winnebago County Board member says no. “Our community is one of the highest in the country for taxes and raising them is absolutely unacceptable,” Republican Eli Nicolosi, a supporter of the Contract with the Community, said. “The burden is just too great on us. As elected officials, we must find cost-saving solutions within our existing budget as a first, second and third option.”
According to Tax-rates.org, Winnebago County has the highest property tax burden as a percent of median household income in the state of Illinois. “Winnebago County has one of the highest median property taxes in the United States, and is ranked 151st of the 3143 counties in order of median property taxes.”
Winnebago County taxes are not just “high,” they are relatively 73 percent higher than Cook County’s. Chad Tuneberg, candidate for Rockford 3rd Ward Alderman and another supporter of our Contract with the Community proposal, immediately saw the difference when he moved from Chicago to Rockford in 2013. “I sold my condo for more than I bought my house for in Rockford, but my property tax bill went up more than 250 percent.”
Local governments began responding to the problem of the property tax burden in 2010, with Winnebago County and Rock Valley College leading the way by freezing their tax levies. The City of Rockford, and Rockford School District and other local taxing bodies followed suit through the years. The problem is, as tax levies stopped growing, needs didn’t.
One of the first to commit to the Contract with the Community was Winnebago County Board member Gary Jury. Jury feel taxes should provide basic services for the safety and welfare of people. “Anything beyond that is extra, and how can you afford it?”
Property crime and robbery were up in the City of Rockford in the first half of 2016. Both Police Chief Dan O’Shea, and Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana continue to push for more tax dollars to put more police officers on the streets and crime is a central theme for almost every local campaign for public office.
Education is another pressing priority. Rockford School District 205’s graduation rate lags 20 percent lower than the state average. The district has spent millions of dollars improving school infrastructure and plans to spend millions more. It has also developed an exciting strategic plan to improve academic performance.
As local governments continue fighting to ease the highest property tax burden and community needs become more pressing, what is the solution? Committing to the Contract with the Community is a good start. Just take a look at the first two points of the contract. Transforming government and transparent budgeting improves the likelihood of ensuring a reasonable tax burden.
Former President Calvin Coolidge understood how transforming government could yield lower taxes. “The object sought is not merely a cutting down of government expenditures,” he said. “That is only the means. Tax reduction is the end.”
In the second of 19 county government reforms on his website, Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney talks about a scorecard for taxpayer dollars, saying, “Bottom line: if taxpayer dollars or fees are being spent, then it should be publicly evaluated and reported out. No sacred cows. The system will evolve as the county evolves; however, the goal is to create a continuous improvement culture with a focus on outcomes, not politics”
Haney doubled down on his commitment to changing county government when the county board amended its ordinances to make sure board members and the county CFO have enough time to review budget amendments before the requests come up for a vote.
Another important change comes from how properties are valued by township assessors. Candidate for Rockford Township Assessor and supporter of the Contract with the Community, Jessica Horstman, says, “I will commit to fair and uniform assessments. I will be pro-taxpayer, not pro-taxing-body and will implement a standardized assessment policy so that all properties are assessed using the same formula and method.”
Horstman believes that transforming the assessor’s office in those ways will produce more accurate property tax assessments and reduce the number of cases before the Board of Appeals. The result will be a reduced property tax burden on the citizenry and less taxpayer dollars spent through the appeal process.
It is important for the community to demand more of public officials than the same old song and dance promises. Think of the Charles Schwab “Wealth Management” commercial. There’s a couple moving through life, making buying decisions and asking questions along the way. One salesman even comments on how great their questions are.
Then the camera shoots to the couple sitting in front of a suited up gentleman behind a big wooden desk telling them how to manage their money. Their response? “Sure,” followed by the a narrator saying, “You ask a lot of good questions, but are you asking enough about how your wealth is managed?” If we want to be sure our tax burden is reasonable, are we asking enough questions of our public officials?
The three major candidates for mayor all say property taxes are too high and are committed to lowering them. Not one outlines when or by how much, though current 3rd Ward Alderman and Democratic candidate for mayor Tom McNamara told us, “Reducing the tax burden isn’t a one time thing; it’s an everyday thing.”
McNamara says that is all accomplished by “providing services at a high level” while finding the right areas to collaborate across government bodies to find cost reductions and efficiencies.
Some governments reduce taxes to require greater efficiency and collaboration. Others require greater efficiency and collaboration to reduce taxes. A McNamara administration seems committed to the latter.
Independent candidate Rudy Valdez says, “The more business friendly the community the more likely there will be business startups and growth, thereby sharing the tax burden across the many instead of the few.” Valdez, like McNamara, believes that property taxes could be lowered through further collaboration across local government bodies.
Robert Heinlein wrote, “There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”
It is not only fair to demand a reasonable tax burden from public officials. It’s the right thing to do.