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Let's talk taxes, baby

Sunday, November 30, 2008
by Kristen McQueary

H ere's the million-dollar question: If home values are plummeting, why are assessed values in Cook County rising?

During a Nov. 19 seminar hosted by Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Brendan Houlihan, more than 500 Southland residents and business owners skipped an episode of "Boston Legal" to learn more about appealing their tax assessments.

Let me revise that sentence: More than 500 angry Southland residents skipped a night of TV watching. They're that mad. Organizers had to slide open the partition of a banquet room at Odyssey Country Club in Tinley Park to accommodate the overflow crowd.

"People are upset," Houlihan said. "It's fairly shocking when you get a proposed assessment in the mail and it's 20 percent higher than it was three years ago. People are miffed because they know the market is not good."

For the next three Sundays, I will attempt to answer your property tax questions, from equalized assessed valuation to the so-called 7 percent freeze to a change in Cook County's classification system scheduled to take effect next fall.

If you thought IRS tax code was confusing, you haven't tried to navigate Cook County's system. It's worse.

Unlike every other county in Illinois that assesses property annually, the Cook County assessor's office reviews property on a three-year rotation. The city of Chicago is reassessed one year, followed by the northern suburbs the next year, and the southern suburbs the third year.

This fall, Southland property owners received their reassessment notices. If you are one of them, your assessed value probably increased, much to your astonishment. The average increase is 20 percent, Houlihan said.

Come January, you'll have the opportunity to protest your assessment through the Board of Review, a three-member elected body that gives breaks to property owners who can prove their assessments are out of sync with their neighbors. Houlihan is on that board, along with Larry Rogers Jr. and Joe Berrios. About half of those who request reductions are successful.

For clarification purposes, Brendan Houlihan is a cousin of Jim Houlihan, the Cook County assessor who oversees the reassessment process.

So back to the initial question: If home values are dropping in this recession-bound economy, why does your assessment notice reflect an increase? When foreclosures are tripling, maybe even homes on your block, why is the value of your house on the rise?

The main reason is because assessments are based on three years of home sale prices - not market listings, mind you, but sale prices - dating back to January 2005, before the housing market faltered.

The next assessment cycle for Southland residents will reflect housing prices in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It would stand to reason reassessment notices delivered in 2011 will reflect that softer housing market. They'll be lower, right? Or they won't have risen as fast.

For now, homeowners are stuck with increased assessments.

While a higher assessment doesn't always guarantee a higher tax bill, which comes next fall, it's an indicator. The real meat-and-potatoes behind a higher bill lies with the taxing bodies in your area, particularly your school districts.

Are your school districts increasing their levies, the amount they say they need to run their districts?

Did you move to the suburbs because you wanted excellent schools - and now you must pay for that increased cost? Good schools with well-paid, unionized teachers, rising health care costs, and new school buildings are expensive.

Did voters approve a bond referendum that will increase the amount school, library or fire districts request from taxpayers?

Those, too, are indicators that will result in more money out of your pocket when your tax bill arrives next fall.

Brendan Houlihan, for example, lives in Palos Heights, where voters were asked in 2006 to approve a bond sale to replace the town swimming pool. They voted it down based on the additional tax burden it would have created.

So what about those marvelous little things called tax caps, approved in the 1990s, that were supposed to keep property taxes under control?

What about the so-called 7 percent freeze, proposed by Jim Houlihan, that was supposed to keep assessments to a 7 percent maximum increase year-to-year?

How will a recently-approved change in the classification system affect taxpayers going forward?

Those questions and more answered next week.

For more information about the Board of Review and how to appeal your assessment, visit

Kristen McQueary covers government and politics for the SouthtownStar. She can be reached at (708) 633-5972 or

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