Editorials

Property tax abatement is less seed than fertilizer

Passengers walk past St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern as they head into MidAmerica Airport. The County Board doesn’t want responsibility for airport expenses, yet just spent $500,000 on insurance for it.
Passengers walk past St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern as they head into MidAmerica Airport. The County Board doesn’t want responsibility for airport expenses, yet just spent $500,000 on insurance for it. znizami@bnd.com

It’s springtime again in St. Clair County, which means fountain spray on the Belleville square, sunrise services at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Snows and that familiar, self-congratulating chirp from the County Building.

The county board Monday approved the abatement of $29.8 million from a $61.8 million property tax levy passed last fall. County Administrator Debra Moore says such benevolence has been a rite of spring in St. Clair County for 30 years, as reliable as longer days and the flourish of tulip bulbs.

“We continue to recognize the benefit offering an abatement to our residents yields and we are once again abating at a level that would once again benefit residents and not at all increasing our taxes,” Moore said during a recent meeting of the finance committee.

Gosh, when you put it like that... it’s almost as if members of the county board are handing out free money door-to-door just because they can.

But if you know how upside down the tax levy process is in Illinois, you understand that Moore is spreading less seed here than fertilizer.

Local governments set their tax levies based on what they believe they’ll need to cover their budgets for the coming fiscal year. To set their tax rate, though, they have to guess at the value of property in their respective districts because they won’t see actual assessments before March of the tax year.

If assessments come in a little higher than expected, they retrofit the tax rate to fit the budget.

“You levy the maximum and then you abate the maximum,” is a more honest analysis of the process, as explained by St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

With its action Monday, St. Clair County took more than $450 off the property tax bill of constituents who own a house worth $150,000. But that’s hardly money in their pockets — it’s just a correction from last fall’s bad guess.

And so, as the swallows begin their annual return to Capistrano, we will once again revert our gaze to the albatross in eastern St. Clair County — MidAmerica Airport. Board members Monday also approved a nearly $500,000 expenditure to cover insurance premiums at the airport just a month after voting 18-10 to keep their distance from its fiscal oversight.

Perhaps accepting real fiscal responsibility would lower the levy and provide the kind of relief to taxpayers Moore is chirping about. In the meantime, what will the new tax rate really save the average St. Clair County homeowner in 2016? Compared to last year, about $1.20.

Oh, boy. We’ll try not to spend it all in one place.

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