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Helping taxpayers (but not the mayor!) understand the property tax system

Thursday, October 29, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

Mayor Richard Daley sputtered the other day as he expressed his confusion about the hike in property taxes Chicagoans are seeing in their mailboxes this week.

"I-I-I-I don't understand it," he said at a news conference. "I just don't understand it. Because everyone's value has gone down, I don't care where you go. ... I-I want to ask (Cook County Assessor James Houlihan) how he does it. That's the whole issue ... I don't get it."

It is confusing. Just about everything having to do with property taxes is convoluted, and every explanation is filled with jargon, acronyms and more math than most of us are used to doing.

Not that I believe Daley is confused in the least. He has operated the levers on this byzantine system for the 20 years he's been mayor, and it has funded his empire. He understands darn good and well what an assessor does and what causes property tax bills to rise.

Most important, he understands that, in all probability, you, an average person who smacks his forehead twice a year when the bill arrives, actually don't understand it -- don't "get" whom to blame.

Here's a short primer in Q & A format, no sputtering:

Q: Does the assessor set tax rates?

A:  No. By law, the assessor estimates the market value of every taxable property. That estimate -- assessment -- is then crunched in various ways by others to determine the share of the overall property tax burden that the owner of that property will have to pay.
Q:  When assessments arrived in the mail this year, many of them were up even though we're in a housing slump. How, to channel the mayor, can this be?
A:  Because of delays built into the system, there's a year lag time built into the process. Assessments that arrived this year are based on estimates in 2008, when the market was better. This lag time can work both ways.
Q;  If the assessed value of my property goes up, do my property taxes go up?
A:  Not necessarily. Technically, these numbers move independently. What matters is how much your assessment -- think of it as representing your percentage share of the total bill paid by all property owners -- goes up (or down) compared to everyone else's percentage share.

If you live in an area where home prices are skyrocketing, however, a big increase in your assessment will result in a big increase in your taxes.
Q: And that total bill just went up, didn't it?
A: Yes, in large part because of the $65 million property tax increase Daley's City Council passed two years ago and is only now coming due.
Q: Didn't the state legislature institute a 7 percent cap on the increase to protect people whose homes were increasingly rapidly in value?
A: The cap, passed in 2004, was not on taxes but on the amount that something called the "equalized assessed valuation" could rise. That cap was itself capped with a maximum homeowner exemption of $20,000.
Q: What you just said is very confusing.
A: I know, I know. I spent the better part of two days creating a lengthy, online version of this Q & A explaining the entire system step by step with as few technical terms as possible. It's posted here if you want to get into the weeds with me on this topic.

But what you need to know in this forum is that some state lawmakers -- notably House Speaker Michael Madigan -- were not big on this scheme for property tax relief, which was promoted by Houlihan.

Q: What's not to like?
A: It benefits primarily those who live in up-and-coming neighborhoods -- some but not all of whom are presumably better off. And it shifts some of the overall burden back to commercial properties, including apartment buildings, small businesses and so on.
Q: But I recall that the General Assembly renewed and expanded that tax break a few years ago.

A: It did. But even as the bill expanded relief in the first year -- allowing lawmakers to preen before voters -- it phased out the relief over succeeding years so that it will soon disappear.

That legislation was stunning in its cynicism and exploitation of the public's lack of understanding of how this racket really works. Almost as stunning as the mayor pretending to be baffled by the basic workings of the property tax system.


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