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Our View: Needing to think longterm for taxpayers

Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Kane County has one of the highest local tax burdens in the nation.

It’s not really a distinction to be proud of. And the knowledge that relief is unlikely makes it a harder pill to swallow.

A study of more than 800 counties by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found that in 2010, Kane County ranked in the top 35 counties in the nation in three categories: median property tax paid on homes, taxes paid as a percentage of home value and property taxes paid as a percentage of median household income.

From 2007 to 2012, property taxes collected in the county and distributed to local taxing bodies went from $948 million to $1.17 billion, according to the Kane County Treasurer’s Office.

Previous property tax increases happened during a booming economy, when the burden was shared by more taxpayers and property was increasing in value.

School districts get about two-thirds of the amounts collected. Batavia School District 101, Kaneland School District 302, St. Charles School District 303 and Geneva School District 304 have grown their levies by 12 to 17 percent, depending on the district, since 2007.

Local school districts increased their levies again in the fall, with most taking the maximum 3 percent increase allowed by the state.

District 304 took a step in the right direction when it instead asked for a 1.5 percent increase. Why can’t other school districts stop short of the full amount?

Setting a school district levy – the total amount of property tax dollars requested by the district – is a guessing game. It’s based on the equalized assessed valuation of property in the district. The levy must be set by December, even though the value of property in a given district isn’t known until the next year.

Most ask for the maximum allowable amount without expecting to get it because the district would lose any money it did not ask for if the district’s assessed value is higher than expected.

“Once you don’t capture that, you lose it forever,” said Donna Oberg, District 304’s assistant superintendent for business. “That compounds year after year. We took a little bit of a risk.”

But the District 304 board, she said, wanted to provide some relief to taxpayers. And residents will still pay more: Oberg estimates it will be a $150 bump for the owner of a $300,000 home.

Oberg said a lower levy was possible because the district has controlled its operational spending in recent years because teachers have agreed to a pay freeze. Those savings were applied to debt – which with interest was at more than $300 million last year – generated in previous years.

We know it’s no easy task to be in charge of taxpayer money these days, especially in a school district. Declining and late state funding make it difficult to keep up with the rising costs of educating children.

But making smart decisions when it comes to finances can be done by looking forward several years, not just the next year, and can result in a breather for overburdened taxpayers.

We encourage local taxing bodies to think long term when crafting their budgets. Show us you are good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

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