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Property tax delay will be costly

Monday, September 27, 2004
Special to suffredin.org
by Greg Hinz

Cook County property owners won't have to pay their second-half tax bills until at least mid-November — the latest date since bills were intentionally delayed a year during the Great Depression.
Interviews with officials in the offices of the county clerk, treasurer and assessor indicate that the new bills are likely to hit the mail the second week of October, with payment due a month later. That means that cash-strapped local governments, which by law were supposed to receive more than $4 billion in tax payments by about Aug. 1, will have to borrow to cover cash-flow needs, with taxpayers paying the interest cost.

Officials blame the delay mostly on soaring land values in Chicago, which was reassessed last year. Those hikes sparked a record number of property tax assessment appeals — more than 200,000 in Cook County — that had to be heard by the assessor and county board of review.
But one watchdog says the delay underlines the need for major changes in the creaky property tax system.

"We need reform," says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a tax policy group. "This demonstrates the complexity of the Cook County property tax system, and points to the lack of confidence" by aggrieved land owners.

As of late last week, county Clerk David Orr's office was finalizing the tax rates for each taxing district. Mr. Orr's office hopes to finish "early in October," according to his spokesman, and to send the results to county Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office mails out individual bills. Her spokesman says printing and mailing will take an additional six to 10 days, with property owners by law not required to pay until 30 days after the bill is postmarked. That would be around Nov. 10 to 15 — assuming no last-minute glitch.

Placing blame

In comparison, bills last year were sent out early enough that the county could enforce an Oct. 1 payment date. In recent years, the payment date has ranged between Sept. 11 (1996) and Nov. 3 (1995). Under state laws first adopted decades ago, second-half tax bills are supposed to be paid by Aug. 1.

Who's to blame? Treasurer Pappas' spokesman says she can't mail the bills until getting the levies from Clerk Orr. Mr. Orr's spokesman says he had to wait on appeal rulings from the board of review. Thomas Jaconetty, the board's chief deputy commissioner, says the number of appeals it handled increased by a third in just three years, and says Assessor James Houlihan's office completed its work late. Mr. Houlihan's spokeswoman says his office reconsidered a record number of cases at taxpayers' request and, while it finished eight days later than in 2000, it was five days ahead of the 1997 schedule.

Whatever the reason, the delay is costly to government units that count on the property tax revenues.

Schools big loser

Chicago Public Schools is losing $1 million a month on interest on the roughly $800 million it's owed, and is "close" to having to borrow to bridge the shortfall, at another $2 million a month, says schools Budget Director Pedro Martinez.

Things are even worse for smaller governments, says Donna Baiocchi, executive director of Ed-Red, a consortium of more than 75 suburban school districts. "This is causing significant cash-flow problems."

County officials predict things will improve next year, when the city of Chicago is not up for triennial reassessment. But given how many appeals there are nowadays, the Legislature "maybe ought to revisit" the Aug. 1 target date, says Mr. Jaconetty. "The early date in the statute hasn't been met in decades."




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