Cook County taxpayers can now see exactly how much of the area's $140 billion in local government debt they may be on the hook for in the coming years.
County officials unveiled a new website Wednesday that allows homeowners to pinpoint the debt load and salary hikes at any local government that gets a share of their ever-increasing property taxes.
"Hopefully this will inspire people to take a look at what is happening in their area," said county Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office created the site.
Pappas' office collected specific financial data from a large majority of the 553 taxing agencies across the county and linked it to the individual tax bills that residents can access online.
So, with a click, a taxpayer can see the amount of debt their town or township owes, along with average salary increases and the total tax levy for the agency over the last decade. Pappas said it is the first such site in the country.
The site includes Chicago, suburbs, school districts, parks, libraries, fire districts and even mosquito abatement districts. About 60 local governments have yet to turn in information.
In total, Pappas said the records show more than $140 billion in debt facing taxpayers across the county, from all levels of local government.
Pappas said the information is not only useful to property owners but also to those shopping for homes. They can see how much taxes have risen as well as how much government debt they might have to help pay off in the long run if they buy in a town.
"It is time to say, 'What am I buying into in each of these communities?'" Pappas said.
While the site offers basic numbers, the explanations behind the figures may be more nuanced.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle cautioned Wednesday not to consider all of the outstanding debt to be a bad thing. Some of it likely went to build roads and repair sewers. Preckwinkle helped unveil the site, calling it part of her pledge for government transparency.
"We all know that sometimes debt … is a good thing," Preckwinkle said, while adding, "If you are in a community in which there is tremendous public debt, that might be a long-term concern to you."
Nearly $34 billion in local government debt across Cook County is money owed on pensions and health care benefits promised to current and future retirees, including firefighters, police and administrators, according to Pappas' figures.
The new website can be accessed through cookcountypropertyinfo.com which was introduced this year to put property tax assessments, bills, liens and appeals in one place.