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Tax talk: Cook vs. Will counties

Sunday, December 21, 2008
Daily Southtown
by Kristen McQuerey

Burger King's signature sandwich, the Whopper, loads 680 calories and 40 grams of fat into your digestive system.

Wendy's Gourmet Mushroom Burger packs 600 calories and 36 grams of fat.

But let me introduce some different numbers about these fast-food Goliaths.

Burger King at 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue in Tinley Park paid $61,310 in property taxes in 2007.

Wendy's, across the street, paid $16,418, a savings of $44,892.

Why?

Burger King is in Cook County. Wendy's is in Will County.

Because of Cook County's classification system, which assesses commercial property at a higher level than residential, Cook County businesses like Burger King pay more in property taxes than they would outside Cook County. The impact on the Southland, given its proximity to Will County and Indiana, is particularly ominous. Businesses are leaving.

The delightful Wheatfield Restaurant on Oak Park Avenue in Tinley Park recently closed, crumpling under a $217,778 annual property tax bill.

As part of an ongoing Sunday series examining property taxes, this week we look at the business angle. Coming next week: Should you hire a lawyer to appeal your tax bill? We'll examine.

Cook County's system of property taxation assesses residential properties at 16 percent of their estimated market value while assessing commercial properties at 38 percent of their estimated market value. That's the law, anyway.

The rest of the state assesses business and residential properties at a flat 33 percent of their market value.

Let me throw one more factor into this complicated scenario: The Illinois Department of Revenue then issues an annual "equalizer" to bring Cook County residential taxpayers closer to the 33 percent they ought to be paying. That equalizer, however, also bumps businesses into a higher bracket.

Why this silly two-tiered system? Because Cook County officials can say they're giving you a break on your assessment and blame the state for that whacky equalizer while the state can blame Cook County for assessment incompetence.

How did we get here?

Delegates to the 1970 Constitutional Convention codified the lopsided classification system for Cook County because of Chicago's unique position. Why make homeowners pay the same flat 33 percent rate as millionaire, downtown high-rise owners? The delegates created a progressive tax structure, never envisioning the suburban sprawl that would pit Oak Brook against downtown Chicago for company headquarters. They couldn't foresee the day when DuPage and Will counties developed into population hubs. They were cornfields.

And so the classification system has persisted, despite its inherent burden on businesses.

Taxpayers and the lawyers who win big tax breaks for their clients like to dump on Cook County Assessor James Houlihan. But keep in mind he inherited this mess. He has called for an end to classification as part of an overhaul of our state's tax system in general, from income taxes to sales taxes to school funding formulas.

I agree with him. That's why I wanted a constitutional convention. You'll never get lawmakers in Springfield, no matter who they are, to tackle an issue like classification without a convention.

The classification system will continue, although the Cook County Board this fall tweaked the numbers per Houlihan's request. Residential property owners beginning next year will be assessed at 10 percent of their estimated market value while commercial and industrial will be assessed at 25 percent.

Before you start ordering cases of champagne, don't expect these changes to affect your tax bill. The state has long argued that Cook County uses the 10 and 25 numbers anyway, despite the steeper 16 percent and 38 percent system.

Even though residential taxpayers are supposed to be paying 16 percent of their assessed market value, they've always paid only about 10 percent. Same for commercial.

By putting the 10 percent and 25 percent figures into county statute, Houlihan basically acknowledged the lower numbers have been common practice for years - even though he had his own spin.

"What it does is provide more clarity to the assessment process. It makes it easier to understand," Houlihan spokesman Eric Herman said. "That's the purpose."

Now go have a mushroom burger. And fries. If you got through a column about property taxes, you earned it.



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