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Estimates show property tax hikes won't be that bad

Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Like many who live in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood, the owner of one recently rehabbed Mediterranean-style bungalow on West Sunnyside Avenue may have been shocked last summer when Cook County hiked the appraised value of his home by 40 percent.

Fortunately for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the home's owner, that reassessment is likely to translate into a more manageable 14 percent increase in the property taxes he must pay, according to newly generated county estimates of key components used to calculate tax bills.

Blagojevich is hardly getting the VIP treatment. Despite soaring reassessment values in many Chicago neighborhoods, the new projections from County Assessor James Houlihan indicate the hit to homeowners' pocketbooks may not be as bad as many had feared.

That's not to say tax bills won't be going up for most city homeowners--and well into the double digits on the nearly one in four residential properties socked with assessment increases of 50 percent or more. Yet even for them, Houlihan's numbers, which anticipate big drops in tax rates to compensate for higher property valuations, indicate increases should be far more modest than the size of the assessment hikes suggest.

A 35 percent assessment hike--the median for all city properties--would translate into a 15 percent property tax increase, or about an additional $219 for the owner of a home with a market value of about $135,000, if Houlihan's estimates of key data used in calculating bills are factored in. The same 35 percent assessment increase on a $540,000 home would push up an annual tax bill by 10 percent, or $706.

Meanwhile, homes that the assessor said increased in value by 20 percent or less--about 120,000 of them, or one of every five in the city--should see cuts in bills, according to Houlihan's numbers.

The first installment of Cook County property tax bills hit mailboxes this week, but those bills will not reflect the effects of the big assessment increases. That will come in the second installment later in the year.

Typically, the tax rate data and other important pieces of the property tax puzzle aren't available until summer. But with anxiety running high among many city homeowners stung by the reassessments, Houlihan crafted educated guesses about the numbers months ahead of time.

Using the homes of some local powerbrokers as examples, Mayor Richard Daley could expect a tax bill of $11,372 this year, a 1 percent increase, even though the assessment on his South Loop town home went up 24 percent. The assessment on Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan's Southwest Side house rose 29 percent, but the Chicago Democrat's tax bill would be $3,931, up slightly more than 6 percent.

Houlihan, who lives in the Lakeview neighborhood, saw the assessment on his three-story greystone increase 30 percent. But his projections indicate his tax bill would only rise by less than 6 percent, to $18,129.

Blagojevich's tax bill may jump to $9,485 from $8,297.

Properties in the city and Cook County suburbs are reassessed, on a rotating basis, once every three years, so the wallop from any reassessment is front-loaded into the next tax bills reflecting new appraisals.

Almost everything about property taxes is enormously complex and ripe for confusion, from the way they are calculated to how values are reassessed on a three-year cycle to the timetable used by officials to distribute bill installments.

Any attempt at simplification or reform is a political minefield, with proposals for change likely to require hikes in the income tax or in other taxes or shifting tax burdens from one set of interests to another. Since public schools consume the largest share of property tax revenues, any significant reform debate would almost surely become intertwined with efforts to revamp school funding.

In the middle of last summer's reassessment uproar, Houlihan stepped up efforts to lobby the General Assembly for a change in state law that would essentially limit the increase in assessment values for most residential properties in Cook County to 7 percent a year.

Such a change, he reasoned, would slow the increase in tax bills for many homeowners and require the owners of commercial and industrial property as well as large apartment buildings, to pick up the slack. Critics, however, suggested it would do more good for homeowners in well-to-do neighborhoods and could end up costing more for those whose properties have not appreciated in value as rapidly.

In running models on the effects of the proposed legislation, the assessor's office devised estimates for what the city's tax rate will be this year as well as another number generated by the state called the equalization factor or multiplier. That figure, designed to even the impact of inconsistent assessment protocols from county to county, is also used to calculate tax bills. The assessor's estimates show the city's tax rate dropping to 6.021 percent from 7.277 percent. The multiplier is shown as declining to 2.41 from 2.4689.

City homeowners can plug those numbers into the attached chart to help calculate the estimated total of their property tax bills this year.

The other key number in the formula, the assessed value of a property, can be obtained from the assessment notice mailed by Houlihan's office last year or by visiting the assessor's Web site ( and following the prompts to find the data for specific properties.

Because the official tax rate and multiplier have yet to be announced, the tax bill a homeowner receives this week will, in most cases, reflect half of last year's bill. The first installment is due March 2.

The full tax increase for Chicago homeowners resulting from last year's reassessment will be included on the second-installment bills to be mailed in late summer or fall.

It is that fall deadline that Houlihan and a wide variety of neighborhood groups and other organizations have been working against. They hope to blunt the effect of huge assessment increases on many properties by persuading state lawmakers to pass legislation that would cap annual assessment growth for most residential property at 7 percent.

More than 80,000 properties, a little more than one of every eight in the city, have had assessed values increase by 60 percent or more.

Many of those properties, according to Houlihan's office, are in traditionally less fashionable neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Part of the reason for the big percentage increases is a simple law of mathematics. Small upticks in value have a greater percentage impact on lower-priced properties than higher priced ones.

"A couple of hundred dollars to some of these people, that's a significant amount of money," said Deputy Assessor Kevin Burden, who added that imposing a lid on assessment growth could also help all homeowners better budget their resources.

Opponents of the 7 percent annual cap on assessment increases say it would primarily benefit the wealthy, harm school funding and possibly add to the tax burden of those homeowners whose property values are growing more slowly. The critics say the estimated drop in the Chicago tax rate is evidence that a limit on assessments is unnecessary.

They note that state law already restricts the amount of dollars most taxing bodies can receive each year.

"It substantiates our argument that the tax cap itself limits any type of skyrocketing increases in tax bills," said Donna Baiocchi, executive director of Ed-Red, a group that represents suburban school districts and opposes the assessment cap legislation. "I think it bolsters our argument."

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool said some relief is still needed.

"These numbers show a neighborhood by neighborhood problem," Claypool, a Democrat, said of the tax results even after the reduced tax rate. "We need targeted tax relief for longtime homeowners getting clobbered by large, sudden increase in assessments."

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