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Brown: Chicago property tax bills to rise — but it could be worse

Monday, June 13, 2016
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark Brown

Property tax bills won’t start arriving in the mail until next month, but the average Chicago homeowner can expect to see an increase of 12.8 percent over last year, the Cook County Clerk’s office reported Monday.

Major caveat: except in a statistical sense, there’s really no such thing as the average Chicago homeowner.

The change in your own tax bill may vary widely from this average, depending on how the value of your property was reassessed in comparison to other homes. If you had a large assessment increase, you can expect a tax increase that exceeds the average.

Still, I’m thinking that a 12.8 percent average tax increase is a lot less than most Chicago homeowners feared after Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council approved a $588 million property tax hike last year to pay for police and fire pensions and school construction.

OPINION

Lost in the fine print when that tax hike was approved is that the city is phasing in the increase over four years, although by far the biggest hit comes this year.

The city increased its property tax levy by $318 million this year for police and fire pensions. That will jump up by another $109 million next year, $53 million the year after that and $63 more in the final year. By then it will have reached a total of $543 million more per year.

The full $45 million tax increase for school construction takes effect on this year’s bills.

One way of looking at that is that Chicago will collect more than $1.9 billion more in property taxes over the next four years — $1.768 billion for pensions and $180 million for school construction — than it would have before the tax increases.

That’s how it’s usually parsed in political campaigns by candidates who didn’t have to take responsibility for the tough vote.

As you probably figured if you are a city resident, that extra $1.9 billion still doesn’t get you out of the woods on property tax increases either, mainly because of the city’s massive unfunded pension liability.

Still under consideration by the Illinois General Assembly is authorization for a separate $175 million annual property tax levy for Chicago teachers’ pensions that would also require City Council approval. It would also have to get past Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has said Chicago should be freezing its property taxes.

Plus, we still don’t know how the city is going to fund its shortfall in the municipal employees pension fund, currently the subject of union negotiations.

With the tax bills on the way, Chicago aldermen are in a hurry to craft a property tax rebate plan that will ease the burden on some homeowners.

A spokesman for Emanuel said the city will start briefing aldermen Tuesday on possible approaches for a rebate —including how much money to give back and how to pay for it.

The Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall is questioning how the city can afford to finance a rebate at this time, and I have the same concern. But political expediency will probably win out.

I know from experience that most Chicago taxpayers will not believe this, but Monday’s release of property tax rates by the County Clerk’s office showed that the city continues to have the lowest composite tax rate of any location in Cook County.

What that means is that Chicago homeowners will pay less in property taxes this year than someone with a home of equal value in any Cook County suburb — assuming the properties are fairly assessed.

If you’re a city taxpayer, that doesn’t mean your taxes aren’t high, only that you might want to keep them in perspective.



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