Cook County homeowners were in line for lower property taxes in the bills now being sent out, according to a report by the county assessor.
But homeowners won’t get those tax decreases from last year in the bills to be posted online Tuesday and dropped into the mail on Dec. 1. Instead, they will probably see either similar bills, or tax increases.
That’s all due to the actions of a different agency — the Cook County Board of Review, the report says. In fact, according to the report, homeowners will shoulder a bigger share of the county’s overall tax burden this year than they did last year.
We certainly don’t expect to see many homeowners dancing in the streets over this news. Instead, they should be asking how this happened.
A complex system
Here’s how the complicated property tax system works: First, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office sets an assessment on each taxable property. Then, property owners who don’t agree with the assessment can appeal to the Board of Review. There are other steps as well. Generally speaking, the higher the assessment, the higher the final tax bill.
Owners of big commercial properties often take advantage of this system. When they file appeals, the Board of Review often doesn’t just tweak their original assessments. For valuable commercial properties, it often slashes them.
For the Old Post Office Building at 433 W. Van Buren St., for example, the assessor calculated the market value at $871,031,166. According to the assessor, the Board of Review lowered it to $619,375,280, a reduction of 29%.
The assessor calculated the market value of the 1K Fulton building, 1000 W. Fulton St., at $197,271,980. The Board of Review reduced it to $161,794,884, or by 18%. For the hotel part of the Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, the Board of Review cut the assessment by 31%.
Was Kaegi’s office really that far off on its original assessments?
Big cuts like that for commercial properties mean owners of those commercial properties pay much less in taxes. Because local governmental taxing units are supposed to get the full amount of money they levy, no matter how assessments are doled out, lower tax bills on commercial properties mean other property owners — often homeowners — have to pay more.
The Board of Review says it is just correcting mistakes by Kaegi’s office. But when it makes changes of this year’s magnitude, it owes it to the taxpayers to be a lot more transparent about how it rewrites the tax bills. Ideally, the assessor and Board of Review should generally agree — or come close — on what the assessments should look like.
A cottage industry, and high stakes
Part of the problem is that Cook County’s property tax system long has been plagued by an industry of lawyers and elected officials who profit off the system and its numerous and seemingly endless appeals. Kaegi has refused to take political donations from lawyers who appeal assessments. Newly elected Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele has said she also will refuse such donations. The Board of Review should make that a strict policy for all three of its commissioners.
Because Illinois property owners pay high property taxes compared with other states, the stakes are high. The property tax system ought to operate with total transparency. At the very least, the Board of Review should get on the same computer system as the assessor’s office, instead of using a slow and painstaking interface. Being on the same computer system would make it easier to share information.
In 2020, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas released a report saying the amount of property taxes local governments in Cook County had jointly billed each year had grown nearly three times the rate of inflation over 20 years. In election season, many homeowners cite the size of property taxes as one of the issues they care most about.
Different Cook County agencies should not be fighting with each other. Instead, they should come together to create a transparent system under which anyone in the public can see and understand how property taxes are calculated.
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