By The Editorial Board Chicago Tribune

Residents of Cook County don’t need to be told that they shoulder a heavy property tax burden. Illinois has the second-highest real estate property taxes in the country, and property taxes in Cook County rose at three times the rate of inflation from 2000 to 2019.

But here’s a revelation: The taxes people pay every year understate the extent of the ultimate obligation. Last year, Moody’s Analytics concluded that Illinois has a bigger public pension debt than any other state, amounting to a crushing $25,000 for every man, woman and child living here. Cook County, too, has huge unfunded pension liabilities — and between 2009 and 2018, they more than doubled.

Want to guess who is on the hook for covering most of those obligations? That’s right: Property owners.

A new report by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas looks at the tax burden in a new way. Her office calculated the total government debt and allocated a share of it to each property on the tax rolls. This is illuminating because not all properties bear the same burden, even if their value is comparable.

As the report says, “Local governments set the levies, or the overall amount of taxes to be collected, in each of their districts. How much of that overall levy is paid by any one individual property owner is determined by the value of their property, relative to the value of all the property within the taxing district.”

The lowest level of debt to property value is in Inverness, an affluent village in the northwestern part of the county. Pappas puts its debt load at less than 7% of its total property value. The heaviest weight, meanwhile, falls mostly on “less thriving areas with predominantly minority populations and less broad tax bases,” the report says. Homeowners in Riverdale, which is 94% African American and has a median annual household income of less than $34,000, pay taxes that are 2½ times higher than those in Inverness, where the typical family’s income exceeds $180,000.

Commercial property owners throughout Cook also get a lopsided share, paying at least 2½ times as much as residential owners. In some high-tax communities, a commercial property buyer will pay more in property taxes before a decade has passed than the original purchase price.

If you live in Cook County and want to know the total debt burden for your home or business, you can find it here: You may want to sit down and take a deep breath or gulp a stiff drink first.

What all these taxpayers and communities have in common is being held hostage to a public pension system that is grossly overcommitted and ruinously expensive. “Higher debt nearly always means higher property taxes,” says the report, “whether those bigger tax bills come now or in years ahead.”

We have urged the General Assembly to let Illinoisans vote on amending the state constitution to allow a sensible reform of our public pension system. It’s the only way to solve a problem that has been building for too long. It is the only way out.

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