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Assessment down? Don’t get hopes up

Sunday, July 19, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Bob Secter

Thanks to the recession and the housing crisis, homeowners across Cook County have begun receiving unusual notices in the mail from County Assessor James Houlihan:  Assessments are going down for the first time in recent memory.  That may seem like a glimmer of good news in a gloomy economic climate, but the Cook County property tax system is so convoluted that it might be easier to grasp quantum physics than project the impact of assessment changes.  Here’s a primer on what it might mean for you:


Q:        Yippee!  My assessment is dropping 5 percent.  Can I now afford that exotic South Seas vacation?

A:        Don’t pack your bags yet.  The assessment reductions will have no impact on the next two rounds of property tax bills to be mailed out this fall and early next year.  The revisions won’t be factored into tax bills until late 2010.


Q:        And then I can start to splurge?

A:        Hard to say, but probably not.  Assessments are but one of several factors that determine your tax bill.  The most important is called the levy, which is essentially the total of all the property tax revenue that a governmental body hopes to raise through the property tax in a given year.  Levies defy gravity.  The virtually never go down and usually go up. So even if your assessment drops, your tax bill could grow.


Q:        So why all the fuss about assessments?

A:        They still matter.  If the assessment on your house is bigger than your neighbor’s, then your bill will be bigger as well.  In a similar vein, if assessments on industrial and commercial property stay the same while those for residential property go down, then the overall property tax burden gets shifted slightly away toward business.  The emphasis here, however, is on the word, “slightly,” and it’s important to remember that when home values were going gangbusters the shift was in the opposite direction.


Q:        What about that state law that let Cook County cap soaring assessments a few years ago?

A:        Depending on how hot the real estate market once was in your neighborhood, it may have prevented your tax bill from soaring into the stratosphere.  Problem is, the caps were temporary and they are now being phased out.  So you could get an assessment cut this year and still be hit with a big assessment increase net year simply because the artificial caps are going away.  We told you this is complicated.


Q:        After all this, whom do I blame if my tax bill still goes up?

A:        It’s always easy to criticize politicians, but if you want to single out a class of culprits, blame your kids.  Seriously.  Property taxes pay for a range of public functions, from Cook county government to forest preserves, parks, libraries, village halls and much more.  By far, however, the biggest slice of your property tax bill goes to bankroll public schools.  In Chicago, 60 percent of property tax revenue is funneled to schools.  In the suburbs, the figure averages 68 percent.  As much as voters complain about high taxes, few are willing to cut funding for their local schools.


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