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Cook County property-tax bills expected to be flat in Chicago, slightly up in suburbs
Tax bills are being delivered late this year, and they're due to be paid on Dec. 13

Monday, November 08, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Bob Secter

There's at least one upside to the economic slowdown that has punched so many holes in pocketbooks and home values: The annual increase in Cook County property-tax bills appears to have slowed from a gallop to a crawl.

The latest round of bills will hit mailboxes as early as Friday, and officials say the rise in the total tax burden collectively faced by homeowners and business in Chicago will be less than four-tenths of 1 percent. The comparable hike in the Cook suburbs comes out to a little more than 2.5 percent.

But those who thought their bills would drop as dramatically as their home's value didn't fully appreciate the convoluted nature of the county's property-tax system.

Last year, Cook County Assessor James Houlihan initiated a special recalibration of assessments to reflect the freefall in housing values in much of the county. Even so, the impact of those lower assessments on the soon-to-arrive round of tax bills was offset by other forces.

Tax breaks imposed during the height of the real estate boom are gradually being reduced. And the state raised the so-called multiplier, the factor added in to compensate for Cook's penchant for valuing property at lower rates than the other 101 counties in Illinois.

Houlihan's tinkering had the effect of reducing assessed values across the county by about 11 percent, county tax officials said. However, that was wiped out by the impact of the multiplier.

Sales- and income-tax revenues decline during a recession because people typically buy less and earn less. Property taxes are largely immune to such a downturn because governments set the total they want to rake in and then expect taxpayers to pay it even if their home values or incomes are on the decline.

That's why actual tax bills don't necessarily track with the ups and downs of assessments.

Still, the trend this fall is one of easing after years of relentless hikes faced by many taxpayers, sometimes in the double digits.

In general, this year should bring "very nominal increases" in tax bills, said Bill Vaselopulos, director of the tax extension department for Cook County Clerk David Orr.

Any discussion of property-tax bills has to be leavened with a big cautionary note. The process of calculating individual tax burdens is so complicated and layered with exceptions that vary from block to block and door to door that many taxpayers may actually experience reductions in their bills from last year while many others still could be smacked by sticker shock.

Technically, the new tax bills were supposed to have been mailed by Aug. 1. While they typically go out late, they have never been this late. Payments will be due Dec. 13 — just 12 days before Christmas and seven weeks before the next property-tax bill installments are to be mailed out. That next round of bills won't come due until April 1, however — an apparent attempt to give taxpayers a little breathing room.

The tardiness became a political football in the just-completed campaign season, with charges flying that key Democratic leaders were deliberately slowing down the process to avoid sending out big tax bills before Election Day. Assessor-elect Joe Berrios denied those claims as he sought to deflect blame to outgoing Assessor Houlihan for mistakes that led to delays.

One thing is clear: The assessment process used to calculate the new bills engendered a record number of appeals from county taxpayers that had to be resolved before bills could be sent out. The Board of Review, the three-member elected body that decides assessment appeals, weighed 430,000 of them related to the new tax bills. The previous record was 280,000.

The disparity between the city and suburban overall increases breaks down this way, according to Orr's office: Taxes requested by the city, county, Chicago schools and most other government bodies in Chicago have remained essentially the same as the ones for last year's tax bills. Meanwhile, some suburban taxing bodies have imposed modest increases in their requests, while a handful gained permission through referendums for bigger hikes.

Other tax data released by Orr's office Monday showed:

•Property-tax payers in Chicago are being asked to fork over a combined $3.913 billion to the city, county, schools, Park District and other taxing bodies — just a hair more than last year's total of $3.899 billion. In the suburbs, the total last year was $7.201 billion, and this year it is $7.387 billion.

The lowest combined tax rate in the county this year is in north suburban Northfield, where property values are high. Taxpayers there are being charged a total of $4.461 for every $100 in the taxable value of their property.

•The second-lowest rate is in Chicago at $4.627 for every $100 in taxable value.

•The highest rate is in Ford Heights, the economically challenged south suburb, where taxpayers are charged $20.595 for every $100 in taxable value.


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