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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:09:19 PM CST

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Jonathan Greig/MEDILL

Property taxes have continued to climb, despite declining real estate values. That is driving many people to appeal their assessments.

Homeowners pack workshops to learn how to appeal tax assessments

by Jonathan Greig
Jan 17, 2013

With the economy still inching its way toward recovery, property values across the city are working their way back to pre-recession heights. However, many homeowners are upset that their property taxes didn’t decline along with their sagging home values.

That disconnect between values and taxes has drawn homeowners to packed tax appeal workshops like the one at the Logan Square Public Library on Monday. The workshops bythe Cook County Board of Review explain how to appeal the property tax assessment, and with the deadline to file an appeal rapidly approaching for some townships, many local residents are scrambling to understand the fine print of their tax bills.

“The high demand for tax appeals all across the country have led to an increase in tax appeal services, and the government is stepping up to meet that demand by holding more tax appeal seminars for the public,” said Andrea Raila, a Chicago property tax specialist.

Many property tax specialists and real estate agents have said the presentations are a great introduction to the process, but have come out against their simplicity. They say that even though much of the process has moved online, the presentations don’t give an accurate portrayal of just how difficult the appeal process can be.

“The criticism from the public is that the presentations are too generic,” Raila said.

For homeowners to prove their tax rate is too high, they must provide to the board a significant amount of information about the house, its value and the value of comparable houses in the same neighborhood. If they don’t use an attorney, they have to argue their case in person.

Logan Square resident Mary Jensen attended the workshop hoping for more insight into the appeal process.

“My husband and I have already been through it once or twice, so I knew a little about it,” she said. “This didn’t really tell me anything I don’t already know.”

Cook County Board of Review analyst Roland Lara, who gave the Logan Square presentation, said homeowners have nothing to lose by filing an appeal. “Even if we realize through your appeal that your assessment was too low, we won’t raise it.”

That may be true, but Raila has seen first-hand that taxes may stay the same or go up even if an assessment is lowered.

“For the first time in 22 years I have seen an increase in tax appeals that, when successful DO NOT lower the taxes but only keep the taxes at the very same level and sometimes the taxpayer even sees a modest increase,” she said in an email.

The property tax assessment is only part of the process that determines how much tax a homeowner will pay. The tax rates set by the city, the school district and other government agencies ultimately determine how much residents pay. Those rates are determined by the size of the government’s budget. In an effort to close budget deficits, most local governments have steadily raised property taxes, angering homeowners struggling to stay afloat.

The way assessments are determined is complicated, prompting many to hire help.

According to Brian Bernardoni, senior director of public policy at the Chicago Association of Realtors, when people use a lawyer or a Realtor to handle the appeal process, they can knock off up to 25 percent of the tax, providing most homeowners with a few thousand dollars in savings.

But as homeowners have become more aware of the inner workings of the appeal process, the number of appeals filed without a representative has skyrocketed. In 1999, only 75,000 people filed appeals, which pales in comparison to the 2011 figure, which was more than 450,000. The Board of Review expects more than 500,000 this year.

Talking about the staggering rise in appeals, Board of Appeals administrator Paul Lee said, “People aren’t filing more appeals because of these workshops. They’re appealing because they’re angry about how high their taxes are.”