K-12 Tax & $pending Climate: how debt ate Chicago

Judge Glock:

An ever-mounting debt burden is the greatest threat to the city’s survival. As that problem worsens, more residents will question whether they want to stay in a windswept city paying down someone else’s pension—or decamp for places that don’t place such a millstone around their citizens’ necks.

According to the group Truth in Accounting, Chicago continues to live up to its moniker “Second City” in at least one respect: it has the second-worst debt load of any big city in America—about $43,000 per taxpayer, or almost $40 billion in total. The first is New York City, but Chicago residents also have to deal with Illinois’ debts, which total $42,000 per taxpayer, third worst in the nation. Thus, a family moving to Chicago suddenly becomes the inheritor of almost $85,000 in liabilities. By this metric, Chicago is no longer second but has by far the worst debt burden of any major city.

Chicago’s accumulating debt might be bearable if the city had low taxes and therefore room to raise them and pay down some of the liabilities. But taxes in the Windy City already rank among the nation’s harshest. According to a national study, Chicago’s combined city and state taxes would eat up over 12 percent of a U.S. median family income. The only large cities with higher proportionate taxes are Rust Belt towns with much smaller populations, such as Detroit and Newark. Chicago imposes the highest sales tax of any major city (10.25 percent) and punishing property taxes, too.

Chicago’s taxation is also brutal on businesses. A recent study of 53 cities found that Chicago’s tax on industrial properties was nearly double the average of other cities. Chicago’s commercial property-tax rate, at more than 4 percent per year, was by far the worst of any major city and more than twice the average.

High debt and taxes might be manageable if the city’s economic fundamentals were strong. They’re not. Chicago relied for years on commercial properties, especially downtown offices in the Loop, to power its economy and fund the city’s excesses. But those jobs are fleeing. Downtown Chicago’s office vacancy rate recently approached 24 percent, a record high. Boeing has moved its headquarters from the Loop to Northern Virginia. These white-collar firms will not pay the city’s higher taxes in the future; they won’t even pay their existing leases.