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Bill Healy/MEDILL

Ald. Latasha Thomas, whose ward includes Englewood, listens as Mayor Daley demands action from Springfield.

Mayor, aldermen demand help with 'broken' property tax system

by Bill Healy
Oct 09, 2008

Chicago homeowners faced with a tax bill that asks for more money this year, take heart.

The mayor, many aldermen, Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan and even one suburban Republican legislator are in your corner.

The bad news: The system that assesses property taxes is broken and none of them can fix it immediately.

As one official pointed out, many Chicago homeowners were surprised that their recent property tax bills were higher – despite a decrease in the value of their homes.

On Thursday Mayor Richard M. Daley, flanked by concerned aldermen, traveled to hard-hit Englewood to decry what he called “a broken property tax assessment system” and called on state lawmakers to help relieve overwhelmed Chicago property taxpayers.

“Next year, when the Cook County assessor’s office conducts its citywide reassessment, it must reflect the lower home values that we’ve seen around the city because of the nation’s recession and also what took place in the housing markets,” Daley said.

There is too much time between when houses are assessed and when homeowners receive their bills, the mayor said.

“The system is archaic,” he said. “You know with all the computers and all the technology you have today it should be used much quicker, much faster.”

He doesn’t fault the assessor’s office, which agrees that the system has flaws.

Currently, property in Cook County is assessed in three segments, roughly a third of the 1.7 million parcels in the county each year.

Residents in the county’s west and south suburbs were reassessed this year.

A city official who works with residents who have questions about their tax bills agreed with Daley about speeding up the reassessment process.

“When there’s a downturn in the economy and it’s clear that values are dropping, there needs to be adjustments before the three-year period,” said Myer Blank, executive director of the Chicago Tax Assistance Center.

Daley also called on the Illinois General Assembly to increase the maximum exemption for homeowners and make that maximum permanent, an idea the assessor supports.

The exemption reduces a property owner’s tax bill; those eligible are owners of single-family homes, apartment buildings with fewer than seven units and condo and co-op owners.

Many city residents were angered this year because their property tax bills increased. That increase, in part, was because the maximum exemption for homeowners decreased.

The mayor said people should be taxed on the current value of their property and eliminate the lag between assessment and when bills reflect that assessment.

A spokeswoman for the assessor said Houlihan supports a yearly adjustment to the assessment to reflect market conditions but said, ultimately, it’s up to the legislature, which sets laws governing property taxes in the state even though each county handles its own assessing and collecting.

One suburban Republican legislator who deals with property tax issues said Thursday he liked what Daley was saying.

State Rep. Bob Biggins, an Elmhurst Republican, said it may be time to raise the exemption and that he would be inclined to support the mayor’s request, but it may have to wait until next year before legislators could consider it.

Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for the assessor, said that roughly 600,000 Cook County residents receive the homeowner’s exemption. All of them would be affected if the exemption maximum is allowed to be phased out, as planned.

At the press conference Thursday, Ald. Latasha Thomas, whose ward includes Englewood, said, “My bill went up. I’m going to call somebody.”

After the press conference, one resident said she wasn’t relying on officials.

Lorena Barrera, 42, who lives in Englewood with her husband and two young children, recently saw her property tax bill go up $400. Her husband, Domingo, a janitor, has told her she needs to get a job, which she is reluctant to do because of her small kids.

Now, she said, “I’m expecting a miracle from God so the payment will go down.”

Short of that, what can homeowners already on a tight budget do?

Make sure they’re getting their exemptions, for starters, Kownacki said. Since they’re retroactive, they can go back three years.

“The whole system has to be reformed,” Kownacki said.