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County must reform property tax system

Thursday, February 11, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Sun Times editorial staff

The good news is that Cook County homeowners may have to pay only half of their property taxes this year.

The bad news is that's not good news at all.

Nobody is eagerly pronouncing this, but behind the scenes officials are worried that Cook County's perennially late second-half property tax bills will be later than ever this year. In fact, they may not get out until January 2011 -- half a year later than they should.

"It's possible -- but not certain -- that second-installment tax bills will be late this year," a spokesman for Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan told us Wednesday. This is becoming a theme, with tax bills out later and later each year.

Last year, tax bills went out at the end of October and were due back in December. The Property Tax Code says those bills should go out July 1.

For those who pay their property taxes through escrow bank accounts, the late bills shouldn't be a problem. But it might be a nasty shock to others who find they're asked to pay the second installment of taxes due in 2010 at virtually the same time they must come up with the cash for the first 2011 installment.

The late tax bills also skew the budgets of school districts, municipalities and other government agencies that must scurry to borrow money while they wait for their revenues. The interest on the loans is just another unnecessary expense that in the end falls on the shoulders of taxpayers.

The problem is that the system is just too complicated.

The assessor's office needs data from the recorder of deeds to do assessments, which then go to the Board of Review.

After the board acts on appeals, everything goes back to the assessor's office and then to the state Department of Revenue to set a figure known as the equalizer. Only then can the county clerk calculate the tax rates and forward everything to the treasurer's office to send out the bills.

If everyone is charge, no one is in charge.

It's time to streamline the system, possibly through consolidating some county offices, and get tax bills out on schedule.

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