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Cook County's big, fat tax lie

Thursday, April 08, 2010
SouthtownStar
by Kristen McQuery

When property assessment notices arrive in the mail, they're usually missing a crucial addendum - two antacids, which ought to be affixed to the envelope.

Rarely does an assessment drop for a house or business, thus the lucrative role of tax appeal attorneys who know Cook County's convoluted property tax system like fruit bats know darkness. Rising property tax bills mean more clients.

No other tax - whether it's income, sales or cigarette - riles taxpayers like the property tax. It's expensive. It's mysterious. And it's right there on paper in black and white. It's like being pickpocketed inside your home.

So when a public fight erupted last week between Cook County public officials who oversee the property assessment and appeals process, the media paid attention.

Trouble is, we got caught in the smoke without examining the cause of the fire.

When retiring county Assessor Jim Houlihan blamed two Democratic powerhouses - county board of review chairman Joe Berrios and House Speaker Michael Madigan - for purposely delaying tax bills to avoid voter backlash before the Nov. 2 election, what he really did was expose the 30-year lie about property value in Cook County.

Residential property owners, primarily in Chicago, have been underassessed for decades. To appease voters, the assessor's office has routinely assessed homes far below their market value.

I've seen the proof. The market value of my Chicago house finally caught up this year to what we actually paid for it nine years ago. I didn't appeal my assessment. I figured it's about time I pay what I owe.

Most taxpayers disagree with me, and 99 percent of them, understandably, don't grasp the complexities of the property tax system.

Chicago homeowners have been getting a break for years while south suburban homeowners who live in areas with little business growth have been paying disproportionately. The owner of a two-bedroom house in Harvey or Dixmoor pays a greater share of his household income toward the property tax and gets fewer services than a homeowner in well-to-do Barrington.

Rather than confess the longstanding property tax lie, Cook County officials toss the issue into each other's laps like a hot potato. Who could possibly keep up with this nonsense?

During the course of his career, Houlihan has blamed rising assessments on gentrification, hot housing markets, the phaseout of the 7 percent cap, the levies imposed by taxing bodies. He also has blamed commercial and industrial property owners who hire slick lawyers and get tax breaks from appeal boards, shifting the burden to the little guys.

While there's some truth to all of that, assessments have risen mainly because Houlihan has tried to bring market value on paper in line with sales prices. You'll never get him to say so publicly. To do so would admit to years of inaccurate assessments by him and his predecessor, Tom Hynes.

But that's the truth.

The twist with the latest game of hot potato involves a rule that Houlihan implemented this year. The new rule codified what insiders have known for a long time - homeowners were assessed at 10 percent of market value, not 16 percent as they were supposed to be. And commercial and industrial property owners were assessed at about 25 percent of market value, not the 33 and 36 percent as advertised.

But to make the new math work without shocking tax rates, Houlihan had to pump up market values. The teeter-totter shifted.

Trouble is, he sent out notices to homeowners emphasizing the lower assessment percentages without warning homeowners that they would see a jump in market value. So tax bills actually are going up, despite assessment notices showing a drop. And by the time homeowners figure it out, they may miss deadlines to appeal their assessments.

The tit-tat over mailing tax bills late is mere smoke. Chances are we're all going to get our tax bills before November.

But the lack of transparency from Houlihan's office is what miffed board of review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr., an independent-minded official who usually stays out of the boxing ring. His district includes much of Chicago's South Side and the south suburbs.

"Homeowners were lured into believing their market values went down based on the decrease in assessed value," Rogers said. "They were not fairly given the opportunity to appeal because they weren't given notice of the (market value) increase."

Houlihan's office insists that it followed all disclosure rules when mailing the assessment notices. It said it sent notices to all property owners, and market value information is listed for each property on the assessor's Web site.

The office contends that the three-member county board of review has become a mouthpiece for wealthy commercial property owners who have the means to hire attorneys and get reductions. Besides, homeowner appeals are up, so they were not misled, according to Houlihan's office.

Fighting words aside, the fire is the historically underassessed properties of Cook County and Houlihan's attempts to right the system without being straight about the problem.

It's about who will wear the jacket, this time, when high tax bills hit mailboxes this fall.

That's why property tax bills ought to come with antacid tablets.

Or a bottle of Jack Daniel's.



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