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Cook County property tax bills could rise despite housing slump

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Bob Secter and Erika Slife

Dreaded property tax bills are expected to hit Cook County mailboxes the first week of October, and homeowners might find them a bit plumper than last year despite the continued housing market malaise.

Figures released Thursday by County Clerk David Orr showed that Chicago residential, commercial and industrial property owners will be asked to collectively shell out $4.05 billion in property taxes. That's up 3.4 percent from last year. The increase is largely due to more revenue being sought by the cash-strapped city schools.

Last year, the increase in what governments asked for was far smaller, less than four-tenths of 1 percent, but back then the schools were still getting injections of federal stimulus cash, which have since largely gone away.

The increase is a strong indicator that city tax bills generally will be larger than last year. But so many variables are baked into the complex recipe for calculating those charges that it is difficult to say how individual households will be impacted, and some homeowners still could see bills shrink.

Orr's office was not able to provide comparable data for the suburbs, where the calculation of overall tax burden varies widely from community to community.

Rising property tax bills might seem counterintuitive, if not galling, to homeowners who have seen home values shrivel but have been gratified to see at least some of that reflected in lower tax assessments.

One problem is that assessments represent just one part of the formula used to come up with individual bills. Another problem is that the entirety of the process is widely misunderstood.

Sales- and income-tax revenues decline during a recession because people may buy less and earn less. Property taxes, however, are largely immune to economic downturns.

Subject to some limitations, government agencies set a total of revenue they expect to reap from the property tax, and then the actual charges needed to hit that mark are divvied up between property owners in relation to their share of the total tax burden in a community.

In a very rough way, if your assessment goes down and your neighbor's goes up, then you may luck out and he or she will have to pick up the slack. But if everybody's assessments go down in similar fashion, then nobody gets an edge.

That phenomenon may lead to teeth gnashing among many taxpayers expecting to get a tax break because of the housing market decline. What some may forget is that the opposite was true to an extent when housing values were soaring not too many years ago big assessment increases didn't automatically lead to increases comparably as large.

Orr's office released property tax rates charged by more than 1,500 taxing agencies in Chicago and Cook County that form part of the equation in calculating bills. The annual release of that data is one of the last in a multistep process that precedes the mailing of bills, something the treasurer's office said could happen by the end of next week.

In general, tax rates at different government entities were up, some substantially. The Cook County rate was up 7.36 percent over last year, Chicago up 3.04 percent and the Chicago schools up 9.09 percent.

To an average homeowner, such increases may mean less than the eye-popping numbers suggest. It's a matter of math. If assessments go down year over year, then tax rates must go up to yield the same amount of money.

Still, the tax rate numbers do in a way serve as a reflection of the overall tax burden homeowners and businesses must bear in relation to the value of their properties. Adding together the rates charged by the city, county, schools, parks and other government bodies, most Chicago homeowners will pay a combined rate of $4.93 per every $100 of assessed valuation, up 6.6 percent from last year.

In Harvey, the composite tax rate will increase about the same percentage as Chicago. But Harvey's overall tax rate is more than three times higher than Chicago. In Glencoe, tax rates will leap more than 17 percent year over year, but the overall rate stands at a little over $6.40 per $100 of assessed valuation.

When the new tax bills come out, they will reflect reassessments of property in the North and Northwest suburbs. It's part of a rotating system where a third of the county gets reassessed each year. That helps explain why the impact of the housing downturn has only gradually been reflected on county tax bills.

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