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Suburban homeowners balk at big jump in assessments

Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business
by Dennis Rodkin


The Cook County Assessor's estimate of the taxable value of this home on Maple Avenue in Wilmette rose by 38 percent. Photo by Redfin

The Cook County Assessor's estimate of the taxable value of this home on Maple Avenue in Wilmette rose by 38 percent.


Residential property tax assessments have soared in several northern suburbs, sparking howls of protest from homeowners worried they'll be hit with big tax hikes next year.

"We're seeing a lot of anger over what residents consider an unfair rendering of what's happening with their home values," said Jan Churchwell, the assessor for New Trier Township, which covers North Shore suburbs including Wilmette and Winnetka.

Among four north Cook County townships that have been reassessed so far this year, New Trier and Evanston had the biggest increases, with the median single-family home's assessed value rising 25 percent from 2013, the last time the county assessed the townships. In Barrington, the median increase was 17.3 percent, and in Palatine, 17.9 percent.

Hoping to ward off the big increase in their property tax bills that higher assessments can bring, homeowners have been streaming in to their townships' offices this spring, contending that Cook County's estimated value of their homes ignores the reality of a slow-to-recover housing market.

The owners of 22,878 residential parcels in the four townships have protested their new re-assessments, said Tom Shaer, a spokesman for Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. That's up about 22 percent from the number of complaints from the same townships in 2013.

At the township assessors' offices, traffic has been heavy.


"We close the doors at 4, but we serve everybody who's in line," said Terry Kelly, the Palatine Township assessor. "We haven't been finishing up until 7."

Home values in most of Cook County remain well below their old pre-bust peaks.

Although values have been rising on the North Shore, they were still 11.2 percent below their pre-bust highs in Winnetka at the end of 2015. In Wilmette, they were 7.4 percent below their pre-bust peak.

"People are not happy that the reassessment seems so out of whack with what they're seeing in the real estate market," said Amy Nykaza, the assessor in Barrington Township.

The assessment is the county's estimate of a home's taxable value; it's not the home's property tax bill, but is half the equation used to calculate a tax bill. The other half is the tax rate, calculated by dividing combined levy—or all the money that taxing bodies, like city governments and school districts want—by the combined taxable value of all property. A property tax bill does not automatically rise if the assessment does.

"Who wants to put up with this anymore? Will it never end," asked Forbes Robertson, who saw the county's estimate of his Wilmette home go up by almost 30 percent, to about $966,000. "There is no discipline about public spending, complete gridlock in Illinois. That's where the anger comes from. The only control we have is protesting our reassessment."

Robertson is among the 12,221 owners of residential properties in New Trier Township who have filed protests since Berrios' office mailed them reassessment letters in early March. That's an increase of just over 30 percent from 2013, according to Shaer.


The increase in protests was anticipated, Shaer said. In the three years covered by the reassessment, "the real estate market has been healthier than it used to be," Shaer said. "That means your assessment goes up, and who wants to pay more taxes?"

Protests "are a vital part of this process,” he said. “We hope you will protest the reassessment," because the assessment system is complex, trying to account for the individual variances among 1.8 million properties.

Protests provide a more detailed image of each property, helping to tailor the county's assessment of the home's value, he said. About 60 percent of all protests result in reduced assessments, and a protest can never be used by the county to increase an assessment, Shaer said.

In Evanston, at least 20 homeowners based their protests on recent appraisals used in refinancing their mortgages, said Mitzi Gibbs, the tax assessment reviewer for the city of Evanston. The appraisals showed the properties were worth less than the county's assessed values. (Evanston Township was dissolved in 2014; its functions are now handled by the city.)

"They demonstrated that their assessed value doesn't reflect true market value," Gibbs said.

Those appeals have not yet been decided on, but "if something needs fine-tuning, we're happy to do it," Shaer said. "We don't see this as a game of cat and mouse. We want to bring your assessment down to where it's supposed to be."

Nine more north Cook County townships will be reassessed in the coming months, beginning with Elk Grove later this week. South Cook County townships will be reassessed in 2017. When Chicago property was reassessed last year, the biggest increase was 20.1 percent, in Lakeview Township, followed by three townships with increases approaching 13 percent.

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