- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - City Hall is stepping into the statewide debate over freezing property taxes.

Mayors and city leaders from across suburban Chicago are opposing a permanent freeze on local property taxes, a cornerstone of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agenda.

In an opinion piece provided to The Associated Press in advance of its public release, officials representing more than 150 cities and villages say a freeze would handicap local government and do nothing to address the state’s budget problems.

They also contend the first-term governor’s plan fails to address the impetus of high property taxes: the state’s meager contributions to public elementary and secondary school funding. Experts say Illinois relies more heavily on local property taxes to finance schools than any other state, and that property taxes here rank among the highest in the country.

The Republican’s insistence on the freeze before agreeing to an annual budget plan is among the demands on the Democrat-controlled Legislature that has led to Illinois not having a state budget in more than two years - the longest budget stalemate in the nation since before World War II.

The mayors and other opponents say halting the ability of local governments and other taxing districts to levy taxes at higher rates would also result in the reduction of essential services, such as police and fire protection or road maintenance, and financial instability.

“It’s a great soundbite, but it’s going to do nothing to help the state budget,” said Roselle Mayor Gayle Smolinski, who has led the city about 30 miles (about 48 kilometers) west of Chicago for 24 years and is a former president of the DuPage Mayors and Mangers Conference.

The mayors’ public stance comes the same week that more than 400 school superintendents signed a petition asking Rauner and the Legislature to stop the gamesmanship and settle on a budget.

Property taxes are collected and distributed locally, with the majority going toward school districts. A much smaller portion, around 10 percent, is collected by cities or villages to fund public services and pay down pension costs.

“If the state of Illinois funded schools, then property taxes would in fact go down,” said Gerald Bennett, mayor of Palos Hills, a city about 23 miles (about 37 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.

Bennett, also president of the Southwest Council of Local Governments, pointed to decades past when the state picked up a larger portion of school districts’ tabs, which lightened the load on local taxpayers.

In 1997, then-Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, proposed a plan to reduce property taxes by increasing the state income tax and diverting the new funds to schools. It died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The current Democratic-controlled Senate has attempted a compromise. In a budget plan dubbed the “grand bargain,” Democrats and Republicans tried last winter to break the budget deadlock by proposing a two-year, temporary property tax freeze. Rauner rejected it, and Democrats pulled the plug on the grand bargain in March.

Illinois relies more heavily on local property taxes to finance schools than any other state, contributing just 24 percent of operating costs for kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Ralph Martire, director of the nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“School districts have had no option but to go after their local property tax base,” Martire said.

However, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, said Illinois’ high property tax burden - ranked fifth or sixth in the nation, according to Martire - prevents communities from attracting residents and business. Franks said allowing local governments to raise property taxes without putting the question to voters ignores “economic realities,” such as falling home values and population decline.

“When the people have less, the government has to spend less,” said Franks, who spearheaded a proposal for a permanent freeze while serving in the Illinois House. “If we don’t spend less, our exodus is going to continue.”

The Illinois House passed a proposal to permanently freeze property taxes in January on the final day of the last legislative session. A current version of that bill is in committee this session.

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The property tax freeze proposals are SB13 and HB359 .

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Follow Kiannah Sepeda-Miller at https://twitter.com/kiannahsepeda


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