Winnebago County still feeling property tax squeeze

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD — While Rockford has landed on a number of bad lists over the years, Winnebago County continues to be on a list of its own.

According to data, Winnebago County homeowners pay second-highest amount of property taxes in Illinois. Owners give 2.39 percent of home value in real estate taxes as of 2017. Those figures also mean Winnebago County has one of the highest property tax rates in the United States — 151st on a list of 3,143 counties, to be exact.

The numbers are as follows: With a median home value of $128,100, the average property tax bill is approximately $3,056 per year. That’s around six percent of the county’s median household income of approximately $49,000.

For years, the argument has been that Winnebago County taxes are nowhere near where they are closer to Chicago. Comparing numbers from neighboring collar counties, that claim would be factually correct, but may be steeped in fallacy.

Lake County, which has the highest rate in Illinois, collects an average $6,285 per home. The median fair market value in Lake County is approximately $231,000. In Cook County, owners pay an average of $3,681 in property taxes; median home values are approximately $265,800.

Winnebago County homeowners who feel the biggest squeeze are those in Rockford, who pay the largest chunk of taxes to Rockford Public School District 205 which is still reeling from the People Who Care desegregation lawsuit filed back in 1989.

Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers are pushing for a property tax freeze throughout the state. So far, it’s a stalemate. Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree on a term for the moratorium. Democrats want a 2-year freeze while GOP leaders seek at least a 4-year term.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has chased an indefinite freeze on property taxes, something neither party in the General Assembly has pursued during budget talks.

And while the freeze may sit well with homeowners, in the long run, it could cut into vital services paid for by taxpayer dollars. Area leaders say both parties must be careful to consider the already cash-strapped Illinois school districts, some facing significant funding gaps.

“I know that the people of Illinois are suffering under the highest property tax rates in the country,” State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said. “While a permanent tax freeze would be detrimental to the school districts that rely on the property tax, I am hopeful this freeze will provide some relief while making sure underserved school districts are not harmed.”

Republicans claim the governor’s long-term tax freeze would help lift several burdens from Illinois families and stop a steady outflow of people looking for economic reprieve in neighboring states. Last year, Illinois lost a total of 114,000 people; more than 325,000 have left in the last 10 years. That’s almost the entire population of Winnebago County.

“These things all go hand-in-hand,” says State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford. “A balanced budget reduces the need for sky-high taxes, more jobs will create more revenue, and reducing costs for residents will keep them here, earning and spending money.”

Illinois has not had a budget in two years. It has been 15 years it had a balanced spending plan, turning the screws on the state’s universities, social services, health care providers, and more.

Last week, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) announced its plans to halt all roadwork if the state does not pass a budget by end of the fiscal year.

“Due to the General Assembly’s refusal to pass a balanced budget, the Illinois Department of Transportation loses its ability to pay contractors starting July 1,” IDOT said in a statement. “While we are hopeful the situation is resolved before then, the department is notifying contractors that all construction work is to shut down on June 30. Contractors will be advised to secure work zones to ensure their safety during any potential shutdown. As always, the safety of the traveling public will be the top priority as the department works through this process.”

Whatever the solution out of Springfield, a property tax freeze is certain to play a big part in negotiations. R.

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