While most politicians don't want to talk about this touchy subject, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas isn't so shy. Her office has developed a new tool to calculate the debt attached to your property.
Illinois has the second highest property taxes in the nation, according to some national tax studies reported by Bloomberg and Wallethub.
Much of that money goes to education and government pensions.
"I believe it's very, very unfair," said Riverdale homeowner Jon Agewoye. He was surprised to hear there is roughly $50,000 of government debt is tied to his property.
"It makes homeownership near impossible for some of us because you never get out of the debt," he said.
Countywide, the debt expense comes from 2,200 government entities in Cook County, ranging from cities and townships to school and park districts. Debt, including unfunded pensions and loans, eventually lands on the doorstep of every homeowner in the form of property tax hikes.
"I think the city and this county needs a wake-up call. And I think that we're not paying as much attention to the finances," Pappas said.
Property taxes pay for services you receive like street lights, water, libraries and public safety. In Cook County, a large portion goes toward paying off past services and salaries through government bonds, loans and unfunded pensions.
"This is a call to action, if you want something to happen you have to register and vote and exercise your right to who is making decisions for you," Pappas said.
On Tuesday, Pappas is launching a search tool so all property owners in Cook County can see how much government debt is tied to their property.
"If you want something to happen you have to register and vote and exercise your right to who is making decisions for you," she said.
Laurence Msall, President of the non-partisan group The Civic Federation, agreed.
"People need to be calling state senators and state representatives. They also need to be talking to their elected school board members and their elected municipal leaders and their mayor to say, 'Do we know what is the plan? What are we doing to address this?'" he said.
The ABC 7 I-Team analyzed the Cook County Treasurer's data. Of the 20 villages or cities with the lowest debt to property value, only one is a minority community. More than half of the 20 cities or villages with the highest debt to property value are minority communities.
"They are high because there are fewer people there, and more people having to pick up the burden," Pappas said.
There may also be fewer businesses in those communities paying taxes and more vacant homes not contributing.
"This identifies just how hard it is to be a property taxpayer in a community that where there isn't a lot of demand for your house, so you couldn't move or sell or even giveaway in some cases, the property, because of the overhanging liabilities of property taxes and unfunded pensions," said Msall.
Those liabilities won't come to homeowners in a single bill. They will come in the form of tax increases over time.
Homeowners like Agewoye, in the village of Riverdale, have the second highest debt ratio in the study. They owe $46,000 for every $100,000 of property. Pappas said they could pay as much in taxes as they paid for their homes over a 17-year period.
"I would like to see somebody find a solution to this. How? I don't know," said Agewoye.
The city of Chicago also carries huge debt and unfunded pensions. The treasurer's study shows that there is about $41,000 of debt attached to every $100,000 in property value.
"There needs to be something done about the high property taxes system, or going to have this continued exit from Illinois, this continued exit from the city, this continued exit from the suburbs," Pappas said.
Click here to see the Treasurer's new online tool and look up the tax burden on Cook County properties. This new feature cannot only be used by current property owners, but prospective buyers who may want to look up a property's debt.
REACTION FROM RIVERDALE MAYOR LAWRENCE JACKSON:
We agree with Treasurer Pappas and your reporting that Cook County's property tax system is broken, and it puts too heavy a burden on homeowners. But it's important that we understand how we got here so we can find the right solutions and not just point fingers and look for someone to blame. I have been mayor of the Village of Riverdale since 2013, and I see every day just how complex this problem is and how it will take real reform to address it:
We need municipal leaders to take a proactive role to address the issue. In Riverdale, we're making hard decisions to refinance our debt to save taxpayer money. We're working to cut operational expenses and find new grants and other ways to pay for much-needed capital projects that we would have borrowed to pay for in the past. And we are working every day to find new business partners to broaden our local tax base, and generate new economic development.
We need legislative action in Springfield to fix the property tax system in the county. We can't continue to pick winners and losers in property tax assessments - communities like ours always end up on the losing end.
We have to reform how we fund our schools. A big portion of our local property tax bill is what it takes to fund our schools. We can't continue that system.
We have to make hard decisions to reduce local pension costs and consolidate local government units. We have to do more with less.
We have to work together on solutions. Property taxes are considered owed to Cook County, not municipalities like Riverdale. We have more than $6 million in active businesses who owe delinquent property taxes to the Village, forcing us to provide our essential services and ask other businesses and residents to pay for it. We need the Cook County Treasurer and State's Attorney to actively pursue these delinquent cases and help us get these funds we are owed, or we'll have to pursue legislation to do it ourselves.
PLANS TO HELP ADDRESS THE ISSUE FROM MAYOR JACKSON :
We have not issued new debt since 2011, two years before my administration began. I have made it a priority to manage expenses while expanding our local revenue base with alternative funding resources. But I only have so many options. We need to have serious discussion and action at all levels of government to help address these fundamental, structural and long-running issues. These problems exist across the state, and seem to be worst in Cook County. We can't just talk about them anymore. We need action. I am happy the Treasurer has created this tool and is working with your station to shine a light on these issues. But my challenge now is: where do we go from here? I hope we can work together to actually help communities like Riverdale and benefit all Cook County residents and businesses.