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Tax bills offer mixed bag of ups, downs

Thursday, October 09, 2008
Pioneer Press

Evanston homeowners who were shell-shocked by exorbitant increases in their property tax bills may well be finding their neighbors aren't feeling the same pain.

The second-installment tax bills that arrived by mail Saturday brought welcomed relief in some households -- even as they compounded the financial woes of some residents already pressed to make ends meet.

Some homeowners saw their property taxes drop this year because they received smaller-than-normal increases in their 2007 assessments. Some "winners" in the tax reshuffling took advantage of a new long-term occupant tax break -- potentially a better deal than the capped exemption available to all homeowners.

But a slew of relief measures enacted last year didn't provide enough cover to protect all homeowners from sharp increases in their 2007 assessments.

"Taxpayers are overwhelmed with the amount of their second installment," said Evanston Township Assessor Sharon Eckersall Tuesday. Eckersall has been fielding calls from distressed taxpayers.

Because the first installment in March was merely one-half of the 2006 tax bill, the full amount of the 2007 increase must be paid with the second installment -- a double tax hit. Payment is due Nov. 31.

Check for exemptions

"The first thing I tell (constituents) is to go check on the tax bill for the exemptions," Eckersall said, noting that many people are unaware of the new long-term-occupant exemption, potentially "a big amount of money coming off your tax bill." (See sidebar.)

In a message posted on his Web site, Cook County Assessor James Houlihan acknowledged higher property tax bills could come as a shock to homeowners at a time when the housing market is stagnating.

Values set during the 2007 reassessment in the northern suburbs did not reflect any recent decline in market prices. If values decline over the next three years, however, the changes would be reflected in the 2010 reassessment and tax bills payable in 2011.

An unusual year

During this cycle, an array of new exemptions enacted by the Illinois legislature in 2007 reshuffled the tax burden beyond what normally occurs during each reassessment cycle.

"In addition to being a difficult year, it is also an unusual one," Houlihan states in his message. "The legislature introduced four new exemptions that could have an impact on the tax bill. With all this complexity, there is no 'typical' taxpayer anymore."

The reshuffling didn't just occur among neighborhoods, or property types, but among homeowners on the same block.

For instance, on the 2400 block of Pioneer Road, one homeowner's property tax bill rose from $15,528 to $18,737, a 21 percent increase. Meanwhile, a neighbor with the long-term-homeowner exemption saw his bill drop from $13,211 to $11,931, roughly a 10 percent decline.

Others on the block saw more typical increases in the 10 percent range.

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