Updated: March 7, 2013 10:14AM
She often signs her letters and emails “Dragon Lady” because she knows her tart tongue, mercurial mien and intimidating intellect make a lot of people uncomfortable.
She has operated her Cook County office imperiously by tucking a chauffeur/bodyguard, a cleaning woman and two party planners in her budget under misleading job titles.
And she claimed multiple homeowner tax exemptions on property she and her husband owned, though you’re allowed only one such exemption.
So Maria Pappas, the longtime county treasurer, has taken some well-earned hits from the media and others, including the Better Government Association.
But she’s also automated, downsized and, to a large extent, professionalized an office that for decades was notoriously corrupt, inefficient, patronage-laden and mismanaged.
And she’s carried out some important transparency projects on behalf of taxpayers.
Consider the latest: After eight months of data collection and analysis, Pappas’ office is giving property owners an unprecedented look at the perilous fiscal condition of their local governments that, in many cases, greedily collect and recklessly spend their hard-earned tax dollars.
Besides the county, these governments are cities and villages and school, park, fire protection, library and sanitary districts, and on and on.
You can’t miss this important information because, for the first time, it’s right there on your property tax bill.
And Pappas came up with a clever PR gambit to draw attention to the initiative a couple weeks ago. She emailed personalized copies of tax bills featuring the disturbing new details to several hundred members of news organizations and civic groups.
The rest of the county’s roughly 1.7 million property owners got their bills last week with the usual depressing tax news — how much we’re paying each unit of local government.
But now the bills also shine a bright and unflattering light on those governments by listing the size of their budgets, the long-term debt they’ve accumulated, how little of the debt is supported by assets and what percentage of their employee pensions are unfunded.
The bottom line is that most of our local taxing districts are drowning in debt and mortgaged to the hilt.
Like shopaholics, they’re spending too much and piling up too much debt but not worrying about the taxpayers they’re sticking it to with today’s bills and tomorrow’s liabilities.
Scariest number? The cumulative debt of Cook County’s 2,000-plus taxing bodies is about $140 billion!
The obvious implication? Fiscal stability will require more painful property tax hikes and spending cuts.
Many groups, including the BGA, have disseminated some of those numbing numbers before, but not with the wall-to-wall reach of a property tax bill.
“I was stunned by the depth of the crisis for local governments,” Pappas said. “If I were the surgeon general, I’d say that 75 percent of our governments are morbidly obese. This has to stop.”
She is recommending painful diets to trim the bureaucratic blubber. And reminding us that behind the numbers are “real people who are being taxed out of their homes.”
They’re struggling and juggling in this tough economy to manage family finances, keep their jobs and pay their taxes.
The Dragon Lady is belching out a fiscal firestorm that can’t be ignored.
Now it’s our job as taxpayers, voters and watchdogs to make local government extinguish the flames before we get burned financially beyond recognition.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.