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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Illinois, There Is a Lot of Work To Do

So, I'm doing the morning news thing, and see a headline on Comcast's home page for the "Best Places to Raise a Family". It links to a Forbes Real Estate article that used various criteria to determine the 20 best counties in the US to raise your kids. Crime, school performance, etc. were all considered.

Two things stood out to me, the county I was raised in, Waukesha, Wi. is number 8 on the list. I always thought it was a good place to live, evidently Forbes agrees. The second thing was not one county in Illinois came in the top 20.

Hamilton County Indiana was number 1, and Ozaukee County, Wi. came in number 2, and Johnson County Kansas was number 3. So the folks from downstate can't really say that it was an "urban type list"; though many of the counties outlie larger urban areas.

Why wasn't Illinois on the list, part of it has to do with our consistently poor school funding. Forbes dropped out "at risk" districts based on Tax Foundation information about taxes and school expenditures.

They also used commute time as a large factor, and that pretty much killed any chance for Cook or the "collar counties" to get on the list. They gave the example of a New York suburb with a 31 minute commute time that knocked them off the list. Greater Chicago I believe is closer to an hour than 30 minutes.

Finally, property tax rates as a percentage of home costs was used as a factor. This is the nail in pretty much every county in Illinois' coffin for this list. While 50%+ school funding based on property taxes was actually a good thing, taxes as a percentage of home value was a bad thing, and those numbers are just too high in Illinois.

Consider that housing cost was also a factor, and Marin County, Ca. with a median home price of $901,000 was on the list. That was offset by the generally low property taxes, since they only get adjusted when a home is sold thanks to Proposition 13.

So how does Illinois get a county into this top 20 list? First, we have to redo the school funding formulas. This is actually a much less popular idea downstate, where districts have lower costs than in the urban areas, but it's necessary for the whole state. Raising the income tax a percentage point, but requiring that the extra state funding be rebated on property taxes is a start. The problem is getting that rebate thing in there before the tax hike. Otherwise politicans will do as they always have, find a way to spend the money, and not give any back.

Second, we have to increase acheivement in our schools. One of the criteria was average ACT scores. Only one of the collar counties (DuPage) has an average ACT (corrected, thanks to my kid) of over 22, which was a requirement to be on the list.

Third, commute time is being worked on in two ways. The first, that we all see (and hate) is the amount of road construction with the I-294, Edens, etc. projects that are going on. The completion of those will help commute times. The second we have little control over, gas prices. More and more folks are moving to public transportation as gas gets more expensive. Those of us who can't are happy for the reduced traffic, though, and keep hoping more folks take the train.

Fourth, another unpopular idea, but one that would reduce taxes is government consolidation. School districts need to get unified in Illinois. The fact that my taxes to to pay two school boards, superintendents, etc, is crazy. Especially since one of those boards and supers are responsible for exactly 1 school. Secondly, we need to get rid of the park districts, etc. as separate taxing bodies and either roll them into the county or municipalities where they are located. Elimination of township governing bodies and moving that to the county or city (which ever is appropriate) would also reduce taxes by eliminating duplicate jobs.

DuPage, McHenry and Lake counties could all make this list at some point, and probably should, IF and only if, the state starts getting it's priorities straight and works out a reasonable change in school funding methods, and the counties figure out ways to streamline spending so taxes can be brought down.

Until this stuff happens, Illinois will get to watch while South Dakota, Wisconsin and Indiana continue to have places on the "Best Places To Raise a Family" lists.

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