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
For clarification purposes, Brendan Houlihan is a cousin of Jim
Houlihan, the Cook County assessor who oversees the reassessment
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
So what about those marvelous little things called tax caps,
approved in the 1990s, that were supposed to keep property taxes under
What about the so-called 7 percent freeze, proposed by Jim Houlihan,
that was supposed to keep assessments to a 7 percent maximum increase
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 www.cookcountyboardofreview.com.
Kristen McQueary covers government and politics for the
SouthtownStar. She can be reached at (708) 633-5972 or