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Issue tax bills now: State's attorney

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Cook County Assessor James Houlihan is ignoring the advice of the state's attorney's office by refusing to issue second-installment 2006 property tax bills without a tax assessment cap in place.
In a letter dated Sept. 19, Patrick T. Driscoll Jr., chief of the civil actions bureau of the state's attorney's office, states:
"A delay in transmission of the applicable Homestead Exemption information not only exposes the county to various financial burdens but also raises the possibility that suit will be instituted by taxpayers or taxing districts to compel the issuance of the property tax bills. If such litigation is initiated, there is a strong possibility that equitable relief would be granted with the court ordering that the levy be extended immediately so that the tax bills may issue.
"With due regard to the prerogatives of your office, we respectfully suggest that you proceed to transmit the statutorily pertinent Homestead Exemption information to the Office of the County Clerk by Sept. 21, 2007."
The letter is not a binding legal opinion but merely the state's attorney's office providing advice as legal counsel to a Cook County official.
A spokeswoman for Houlihan said the assessor has chosen to ignore the advice because he fears that issuing the tax bills without an assessment cap would expose thousands of homeowners in Chicago to property tax increases of 50 percent to 100 percent.
The second-installment tax bills, normally mailed in early September, have not even been calculated. The assessor sets the tax assessments, the county clerk then calculates the tax rates for local government bodies and the county treasurer mails the bills. That entire process normally takes at least a month, I am told.
As a result of the delay, some public school districts, which rely heavily on property tax disbursements for funding, are issuing tax anticipation warrants - loans on the amount of tax revenue they can expect. Other school districts are borrowing from their funds, losing the amount of interest they would earn on these investments.
The 7 percent cap on property tax assessments was passed in 2003 after Houlihan's lobbying efforts convinced legislators that increases in the fair market value of single-family homes had caused property tax bills to skyrocket beyond the ability of many residents to pay. In addition, Houlihan had argued that the tax burden during the past decade had shifted in Cook County from businesses to single-family homeowners.
The legislation was set to expire this year, but a new version phasing out the cap over three years was crafted by House Speaker Michael Madigan and passed by the Legislature.
Houlihan advocated an even higher tax cap than his initial 7 percent solution.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is in a bitter feud with Madigan, last week used his veto power to amend the House measure and expand and increase the tax breaks for homeowners. Houlihan appeared at a news conference to endorse the governor's plan.
But the measure now must go back to the Legislature, where sources tell me Madigan plans to kill it.
In the meantime, school districts, library districts, fire districts, municipalities and the county itself are not receiving the property tax money they have anticipated in their budgets.
If the property tax bills are not mailed before Nov. 1, school districts will not have the money they need to make their bond payments, which are due Dec. 1. Property owners have 30 days to pay after receiving the bills.
"There is a panic setting in in a lot of school districts," said Rob Grossi, Bloom Township's school treasurer. "People have to start making plans on how they're going to deal with this situation, and nobody's sure what's going to happen."
Houlihan is hopeful that the governor and Madigan "can put their differences aside" and agree on at least a one-year tax cap expansion to resolve the current dilemma.
And I'm hopeful for a peaceful resolution of disputes between the Palestinians and Israelis. Neither is likely to happen anytime soon.
The House is scheduled to meet Oct. 2, and although Houlihan is encouraging expedited action on the tax cap, no one knows what's going on in the speaker's mind.
If Houlihan were to issue tax bills without the cap in place, not only would property tax payments skyrocket, but at some point, Cook County might have to issue corrected bills or refunds if the legislation were to pass. Because the county has never had to make such massive corrections in tax rates, no one seems to know how this would be done, or if it could be.
Houlihan seems to be counting on public pressure to bring Blagojevich and Madigan to the bargaining table. He figures neither man wants to be viewed as the guy responsible for tax increases that forced homeowners out of their dwellings.
The expiration of the original three-year tax cap has a greater impact on Chicago at this point because it was timed to go into effect with Cook County's reassessment system, which divides the county into three areas.
Chicago was reassessed in 2003, the first year the law went into effect, and the cap expired in 2006.
North suburban homeowners were reassessed in 2004, so they would not see the impact of the cap expiring until next year.
The south suburbs first benefitted from the cap in 2005 and would be the last to see any impact if the bill is not extended.

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