Maria Pappas has been Treasurer of Cook County since 1998. She awakened a sleeping office and has made it efficient in its processes and economic in its expenditures.
Pappas is a native of West Virginia and a proud granddaughter of Greek immigrants. She came to Chicago with a degree in psychology and plunged into public service, managing a drug program in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens public housing project. This experience compelled her to earn a law degree.
In 1990, as a psychologist and a lawyer, she ran for Cook County commissioner and won. She became a budget guru who fought for tax cuts, open government, an end to no-bid contracts, support for pregnant teens, and more. She brought light to the County Board’s proceedings.
In 1998, she ran for Treasurer, knowing that the office was behind the times in how it collected property taxes. The office today handles $18 billion a year in public money, including $13 billion in taxes on some 1.8 million parcels of property. The revenue is quickly distributed to 2,200 local governments by an office that is a model of efficiency.
In 1998, it wasn’t. Pappas found $30 million in checks in boxes, uncashed. She quickly got a bank lockbox, deposited the checks and boosted deposit interest that year from $4.8 million to almost $18 million. And she began streamlining the office.
Her achievements include reducing staff from 250 to 58, submitting 20 consecutive budgets at or below targets, closing five satellite offices but taking payments at Chase and community banks, inaugurating online payments, establishing an online system for mortgage companies and banks to pay in bulk, providing a phone system that assists in English, Polish and Spanish and creating a website with information in 23 foreign languages and the ability to translate material into 108 languages.
Beside bringing her office into the 21st Century, Pappas has embarked on an initiative to spell out for taxpayers what’s in their tax bills.
In a major advance for transparency in government, Pappas authored the county’s Debt Disclosure Ordinance that tells taxpayers — on their bills and online – how much each government is taxing them, how much that government owes for operations and pensions, and more. The DDO may be why the Treasurer’s website, cookcountytreasurer.com, regularly tops a million visits a month.
Her “Pappas Studies” about Cook County’s 20-year property tax history, the Scavenger Sale and other topics of interest to owners of homes, businesses and land in the nation’s second-largest county by population are increasing public awareness of how and why governments tax them.
In about a year, Pappas’ “Black and Latino Houses Matter” has returned more than $120 million to owners in minority communities, many of whom learned from Pappas’ office that they had refund and exemption money owed to them.
Pappas is a champion baton-twirler who has participated in running, bicycle and swimming competitions and who loves to prepare meals with a pressure cooker.