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Wealthy appeal property taxes more than poor, data shows

Thursday, December 04, 2008
Medill Reports
by Bill Healy

The squeaky wheels among Cook County property taxpayers will get their grease as usual.

And the silent wheels will carry an increased portion of the county tax burden, unless they take action soon.

In October Mayor Daley, joined by suburban mayors and commissioners from the board of review, urged homeowners to appeal their assessments in the face of declining home values. Board commissioners indicated homeowners who appeal stand a good chance of having their assessments lowered. 

But, as Art Lyons of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis explained, “The property tax is like a giant balloon. If you push in one place, it pops out somewhere else.”

That means homeowners who don’t appeal will be stuck paying for a larger piece of the pie than they otherwise would have.

“The property tax is completely unlike any other tax,” Lyons said. “If a person cheats on their income taxes, it doesn’t make anyone else’s income tax get higher. If I embezzle sales tax from my store, your sales taxes don’t get any higher. [But] if I go to the board of review and get my assessment reduced, that makes your property taxes higher [in the long run].”

Homeowners who live in Chicago’s more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs historically have appealed at rates significantly higher than those who live in poor and minority areas of the city and county.

“Those [homeowners] in tracts with large numbers of African-Americans and Latinos were less likely to file an appeal,” said University of Illinois-Chicago professor Rachel Weber, who has studied Cook County property tax appeals by census tracts.

In short, homeowners who know to ask for a reduction typically can get one. Homeowners who don’t ask or who are ignorant of the process, wind up shouldering a larger burden.

That’s not to say that poorer parts of the county pay more in absolute dollars than wealthier areas. After all, if a home’s value is high, the property taxes are also high.

But it does mean that homeowners who don’t understand the appeals process lose out.

The good news: It’s not too late for most to take advantage of the appeals process.

Where’s mine?

In 1967 legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko devised a new motto for the city: Where’s mine? Homeowners who haven’t appealed can ask that same question of today’s board of review.

The board doesn’t decide how much each piece of property is worth – that’s the assessor’s job – but it can fix errors on assessments. The assessor can do this too, but residents in each township in Cook County have only a certain window of time when they can appeal, and for most townships, the assessor’s deadlines have already passed for this year. Homeowners who live in any of these townships can still appeal to the board of review, although the board also is closing in on the date when it will stop accepting appeals.

Data from the assessor shows that in past years appeals to the office have been spread unevenly throughout the county.

On the South Side, for instance, fewer than 10 percent of homeowners south of Pershing Road appealed to the assessor.

By comparison, almost half of all homeowners along the near north lakeshore appealed to the assessor. These rates were higher than even those in tony suburban areas such as River Forest and New Trier Townships, where slightly fewer than 40 percent of homeowners appealed.

Comparable data from the board of review wasn’t available, and the assessor’s information doesn’t say whether homeowners won their appeals or by how much.

The assessor’s data for Chicago is for 2006, data for townships in the northern suburbs is from 2004, and data for the southern and western suburbs is from 2005, in all cases the most recent data available.

Weber, the UIC professor, said homeowners living in census tracts with higher levels of education and wealth appeal at higher rates, although she noted that the highest number of appeals come not from the wealthiest census tracts but from upper-middle class areas. She hypothesized that this might be because the wealthiest homeowners can afford to pay hefty tax bills. But she acknowledged there were contradictory findings as well.

Weber worked with an economist colleague at UIC on the report, which she hopes will be completed by the end of the year. To produce the report they examined appeals from the assessor’s office for the city of Chicago for three different years.

Almost a quarter of all property taxpayers in Cook County file appeals, said Andrea Raila, who used to evaluate appeals at the board of review. In most other cities and counties nationwide it’s closer to 2 or 3 percent, she said.

If 100 percent of properties, including commercial and residential, appealed and got the same percentage reduction, no one’s taxes would change, Lyons said.

Asked why she studied this issue in particular, Weber said, “Government agencies rely on property taxes. … Why should somebody get out of it and not others?”

'It’s pretty simple'

Joyce King, 44, owns a two-flat in the Park Manor neighborhood on the South Side. On a recent weekday, King took the day off from her job at a social service agency to appeal to the board to lower her assessment, which doubled this year.

There’s an unwritten rule that homeowners who appeal won’t have their assessments raised, said Bob Vondrasek, director of the South Austin Community Coalition. The coalition is one of many agencies across the city that has attempted to help homeowners appeal their taxes.

“The three commissioners of the board are elected. It’s in their interest to develop constituencies,” Lyons said, explaining why assessments aren’t raised during appeals.

Still, King said she hesitated at first. “They make it appear as though there’s more to it when actually it’s pretty simple,” she said.

King said, “I took the day off but I could’ve done it on my lunch hour."

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