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Flummoxed by our property tax system? You're not alone.
If you want a subject that drives people with even the most advanced degree into a screaming rage, take a look at Cook County’s near-indecipherable structure. Here's a story that makes the point.

Thursday, September 09, 2021
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Sir Isaac Newton formulated the laws of gravity and motion. Watson and Crick discovered the DNA double helix that is the blueprint of life. Albert Einstein propounded the theory of relativity.

Child’s play. If you want a subject that’s really tough to understand, something that drives people with even the most advanced degree into a screaming rage, take a look at Cook County’s near-indecipherable property tax system.

Here’s a story that makes the point.

 

A few weeks ago, County Treasurer Maria Pappas released the latest in a series of very solid reports on who pays what under our tax system. In other words, who really gets dinged. The news, as reported by outlets including Crain’s and the Chicago Tribune, was that the usual list of relatively impoverished towns in the south and west suburbs were once again getting whacked, with the total tax bill—or extension—up 10%, 20%, even 30% in towns where people can’t afford to pay more even in non-COVID times.

 

 

Why are officials asking for more taxes in such areas? I decided to try to find out, looking at six towns in particular: Bellwood, Cicero, Dixmoor, Ford Heights, Robbins and University Park. So I asked the Pappas folks if they could break down the tax bill by taxing authority. In other words, of the additional $6.756 million billed collectively to property owners in Bellwood, how much went to the schools, the village and so on? If I knew that, I could go ask those government units why.

Pappas’ office replied that it doesn’t have all that data, and referred me to the official who actually prepares the extensions, County Clerk Karen Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s office doesn’t collect the data that way, either, but provided me a rough workaround. The problem was that Yarbrough’s annual tax-hike figures for the six towns came in a lot less than Pappas’ did.

 

 

Why the difference? After a good two weeks going back and forth, most of the answer turns out to be tax-increment financing, or TIF, that oughta-be-four-letter word that many Chicagoans have come to despise.

While the city has lots of TIF districts, the suburbs have dozens of their own. And of the big tax hike in the six towns I asked about, TIFs soaked up half or more of the loot in three of the towns, and a good chunk of it in the fourth. The money is going not to the village or the local school board, but to the TIF district for economic development incentives or whatever.

The bad news is that, since villages and school boards generally raised their overall tax extension 2% to 4%, all the other taxpayers in town have to make up what those in the TIF aren’t paying. Ouch! The good news is that big TIF hikes generally occur only every third year, the year the pertinent section of the county is reassessed. Since the south and west suburbs were reassessed in the year Pappas’ report covered, Bellwood, et al., appeared to be outliers. But they almost certainly won’t be outliers in the next two years, when there will be no reassessment and TIF taxes will remain about constant.

There’s a different explanation for the big tax hikes in Dixmoor and Robbins. According to Pappas, it’s because the value of properties there was raised more in the reassessment than land and buildings in adjacent towns that share the same school district. That shifted the tax load.

 

County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office says he tried to do something about that, but the Cook County Board of Review changed his proposed assessments, hitting homeowners harder. The Board of Review points the finger right back, saying nothing it did changed the size of the total tax bill from all property owners collectively. Both say they’re just doing their job in fairly valuing property.

Meanwhile, Pappas says her report was just “a snapshot in time” and that next year’s report should resolve any misimpression caused by the triennial reassessment.

 

Got all that? As Civic Federation President Laurence Msall summarizes, “We have a complicated, convoluted property tax monster here.” Amen.



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