Maria Pappas has been Cook County Treasurer since 1998.
When she became Cook County Treasurer, the office was a low-key operation indifferent to progress, maybe even hostile. Nobody paid it much mind. Its 250 employees used letter openers to open envelopes to record by hand the checks taxpayers mailed in.
Pappas immediately realized that the office was extremely inefficient, in large part because it had failed to adopt modern technology. She instantly embraced the technology and automation that would bring the office into the 21st century.
Today, it has 59 employees who work in what may be the most technologically sophisticated office in any Illinois government, and a Treasurer recognized in many corners of the world for the efficiency and economy with which she runs her shop.
It's been a long and hard trip. When Pappas walked into her office for the first time in December of 1998, she saw piles of cardboard boxes on the floor. In the boxes were checks, over $30 million worth, some there for 12 weeks, undeposited and earning
no interest for Cook County.
She immediately contracted for a lockbox at a bank and deposited the checks. In her first year, interest earned went from $4.8 million to almost $19 million. This first move into technology hinted at what was to come for what had been a governmental backwater.
Cook County is one of the world's largest economies, with 5.28 million people and the nation's third-largest city, Chicago. The Treasurer's Office handles $17 billion a year in property taxes paid in two installments on 1.8 million parcels of property
(homes, business and land). The office then must distribute these property tax revenues to 2,200 local government agencies such as municipalities, school districts, police and fire districts, library districts and others units of government that tax
properties. It has to be done right and it has to be done fast.
The granddaughter of Cretan immigrants, Pappas was born on June 7, 1949. She was raised in Warwood, West Virginia, a town of 2,000 near the coal-mining city of Wheeling. As a child, she studied the Greek language and music of all kinds. She played the
electronic pipe organ, directed the choir and traveled around the country with the all-state band as bass clarinetist. As a drum majorette, she won nine gold medals in baton-twirling competitions.
Education is her life-long passion. Pappas earned a degree in Sociology from West Liberty State College (now University), in West Liberty, West Virginia, in 1970; a degree in Guidance and Counseling from West Virginia University in Morgantown in 1972;
a doctorate in Counseling and Psychology from Loyola University of Chicago in 1976; and a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1982.
As a young woman, Pappas came to Chicago to pursue her education. Her public service career grew out of studies at what is now Adler University and a grant from the Illinois Attorney General's Office to work in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens public housing
project. At Altgeld Gardens, she managed the Day One Drug Abuse Center, keeping young people free of drugs. Testifying for the young in court cases led her to visit prisons and jails, which led her to go to law school and to consider public service.
In 1990, she ran for Cook County Commissioner, one of 17 such seats on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which oversees health care, law enforcement, taxes and many other matters.
Pappas won and for eight years represented Chicago's North Side and North Shore suburbs. As a county commissioner, she built a reputation as a budget guru, a fiscal hawk who supported tax cuts and open government, and fought inefficiencies in government.
She won fights for human rights ordinances and introduced measures to install reform in areas such as truth-in-lending budgeting, end no-bid legal and bond-issue contracts, and require status reports by outside consultants. She co-authored a study on
teenage pregnancy, outlining a program to combat a key societal issue. All along, she heard that she was effective as one of 17 commissioners, but she would be more effective by holding her own office.
In 1998, she ran for Cook County Treasurer and won.
Pappas inherited an office that had four working computers, six typewriters and many, many letter-openers – payment envelopes were slit open by hand and sums written in ledger books. No wonder that $30 million in checks were sitting on the floor!
She had a vision: Make the office paperless. So, she kept changing things, innovating, turning the office into a networked system of computers that integrated collections, deposits, earnings, distributions, refunds and other data that had been logged
in pen and ink. An integrated cashiering and general-ledger system resulted in speedier access to payment and other data for taxpayers and local government agencies.
She established a website, cookcountytreasurer.com, that averages about a million visits per month so taxpayers can check their payments, search for refunds, see possible missing exemptions, and more. Her Debt Disclosure Ordinance of 2009 provides taxpayers
an up-close view of the debts, operational and pension-related, of the governments that tax them – information that also goes on tax bills mailed to taxpayers. Pappas is proud of this extraordinary exercise in data transparency because taxpayers now
can monitor their governments and the taxes those governments levy.
During her years of education and training, Pappas taught psychology and family relations across the United States and in eight European countries and Israel. Today, Pappas' reputation for technological savvy and understanding of local sensitivities has
caught the attention of foreign governments, and many have visited to see how she does what she does.
She has shown China how to develop a property tax system and to network hospitals. She has consulted with Greece on issues involving criminal justice, taxation and general automation. And she has spoken to parliaments and groups in Greece, Poland, Mexico
and the Dominican Republic. Her general theme is "On the Frontier of the Property Tax System."
Pappas hosted a meeting of more than a dozen nations of the Organization of American States, describing her office's data and technology sophistication, and showing them Chicago. The Treasurer also appeared before mayors from North and South America at
the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado.
Pappas has gone from strength to strength in streamlining operations, with particular attention to the labor-intensive process of refunding overpayments to taxpayers. Those seeking refunds no longer have to apply for them – Pappas' office developed a
system to locate those owed a refund and to send the money to them without all the paperwork.
Her dedication to people, not power, was shown dramatically in 2017, when a change in federal tax law meant taxpayers would lose their property tax deductions if they failed to pre-pay before January 1, 2018. Pappas developed the means to accept early
payments on her website and in her office. She kept the doors of her office in the Cook County Building in downtown Chicago open on New Year's Eve, a Sunday, so taxpayers could come in and meet the deadline.
Pappas welcomed them with a handshake and a slice of baklava.
Her office collected more than $750 million in early payments that Cook County taxpayers were able to deduct on their income taxes.
Since 2020, Pappas' office has returned more than $300 million in overpayment and exemption refunds to Black and Latino homeowners through her Black and Latino Houses Matter program. She invites callers to talk to her on her half-hour radio program, Black
Houses Matter, every Monday morning on WVON-AM 1690. Callers often find out that they have money owed to them. Seven phone banks held in collaboration with ABC7-TV identified nearly $29 million in refunds for callers. She has visited ward offices,
churches, schools, and fire and police stations so taxpayers can see if they, too, have a refund due.
Pappas' achievements include:
- Reduced staff from 250 employees in 1998 to 59 employees in Fiscal Year 2023, a reduction of 76.4 percent.
- Submitted 22 consecutive budgets that have either met or gone below target.
- By FY23, offset 95 percent of the County's annual budget allocation to the Treasurer's Office, using non-tax revenues to upgrade technology, streamline processes and reduce staffing costs.
- Closed her five satellite offices but established payment facilities at all 400 Chase branches in Illinois and more than 160 community banks in Cook County.
- Introduced online payments, via cookcountytreasurer.com, so payment of current and prior years' taxes owed can be paid online from any computer, anywhere, any time.
- Established an online system for mortgage companies and banks (third-party agents) to pay in bulk via wire payments.
- Created outreach materials in English and 27 other languages.
- Enabled website content to be translated easily into 108 foreign languages.
To help property owners, in 1998 Pappas created a bold rule that overhauled the annual tax sales her office is required to hold. Pappas' rule prevents tax lien investors from colluding to increase their profits at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. The
investors challenged her anti-collusion rule all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which decided in Pappas' favor. Phoenix Bond & Indem. Co. v. Pappas set a legal precedent authorizing government officials to enforce the legislature's intent even when the law doesn't spell it out. The decision has been cited in 29 court decisions and at least three law review articles, and most county treasurers
in Illinois have since adopted similar rules.
Pappas is proud of the Debt Disclosure Ordinance (DDO), an unprecedented step for transparency in government. The DDO came out of questions she encountered from taxpayers about rising taxes. Recognizing that taxpayers needed to see how much of their taxes
were going to which local governments (taxing districts), Pappas oversaw design of a system that shows how much each taxing district is billing taxpayers and how much it owes in debt for pensions, operations and other costs. The information is on
her website and on property tax bills mailed to taxpayers. Pappas urges citizens to use the information to monitor local-government spending.
Pappas created a think tank – led by two investigative journalists and data and mapping experts – to study inequities in the property tax system. This research group has published multiple studies,
including how the federal government's sanctioning of racist housing practices (redlining) led to massive swaths of blight and how hedge funds and private equity firms profited from loopholes in the property tax system at the expense of local governments.
The Pappas Studies provide taxpayers an extraordinary window into a complex property tax system, and have won attention from politicians and academicians. Within two years of the inception of Pappas’ think tank, the Illinois General Assembly passed
property tax reform legislation of an historic nature – making things easier on homeowners and harder on tax buyers who exploited the system. To guide legislative change and sharpen internal focus, Pappas appointed an office policy director who worked
closely with the research group so that the office gave itself the best chance for legislative success.
Pappas' website has enormous amounts of information about the property tax system, and her office designed cookcountytreasurer.com to be interactive and informative. Not only can taxpayers pay current and prior-year taxes online, they also can check payment
status, search for refunds and check on exemptions. The website offers downloadable forms and applications, information on mortgage escrow, and answers to frequently asked questions. The office's phone system, 312.443.5100, gives assistance in English,
Polish and Spanish. As on the website, the phone system allows taxpayers to determine payment status, search for refunds going back 20 years and verify property tax exemptions.
Cook County is one of the nation's most diverse counties and Pappas' website addresses that diversity with brochures in print and on the website in Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, English, Filipino, German, Greek,
Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovakian, Spanish, Thai, Ukrainian, Urdu and Vietnamese.
Pappas is active in seminars and think-tank sessions. She has participated in Symi Symposiums on world economic matters in Greece, and has attended the prestigious Aspen Institute Executive Seminar.
An avid bicyclist, runner and swimmer, Pappas has participated in some 100 rides, marathons, triathlons and long-distance rides for charity, including: 500-mile Midwest AIDS Ride from Minneapolis to Chicago; Cowalunga Tour to benefit the American Lung
Association; and two Ground Zero-to-Pentagon rides to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Pappas is a skilled chef dedicated to healthful food who prepares meals with pressure cookers, sometimes firing up six for one night's fare. She says the pressure cookers remind her of politics and government – you just have to learn how to use them to
get good results.