Cook County's big, fat tax lie
Thursday, April 08, 2010
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
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
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.