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updated: 12/31/2010 4:24 PM

Cook homeowners carrying heavier load in assessments

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Cook County homeowners are carrying an ever-increasing burden of the full county's property assessment, according to data obtained from the assessor's office through the Freedom of Information Act.

It's a trend that is consistent across the northwest suburbs.

The data show that for the 2004 tax year, Class 2 properties, or single-family dwellings with six units or fewer, held 56.6 percent of the county's full assessed property value. Yet for the 2009 tax year just reassessed, Class 2 properties made up 64.5 percent.

Similar increases for the six-year period were across the board in Wheeling, Palatine, Barrington, Maine, Schaumburg, Hanover and Elk Grove Townships.

Class 2 properties as a percentage of the whole did rise countywide from 83.4 to 84.8 percent, a 1.7 percent increase. Yet that was dwarfed by the 14 percent increase as a percentage of the full assessed value.

Because the Cook County property-tax system is a "zero-sum game," as described in a report by the Civic Federation, when some property owners pay more, others pay less, and vice versa. The data suggest homeowners are shouldering a heavier burden of the tax load measured against commercial properties, albeit with forms of relief such as the senior exemption and the so-called 7 percent homeowner's exemption.

Over the same six-year period, Class 5 commercial and industrial properties went from making up 36.2 percent of the county's total assessed value to just 29.7 percent, an 18 percent drop, even as the total number of such properties were sliding from 5.5 percent of the county overall to 5.1 percent, down only 7.2 percent.

That is in line with the findings of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan, business-oriented government watchdog.

"Our longer trend shows that it has been consistent over at least 10 years," said Lise Valentine, vice president of the group.

In 1999, the overall Cook assessment percentage was 48.6 percent for residential and 31.6 for business and industrial, she said.

Again, the recent five-year trend was consistent across all northwest suburban townships, but the drop in the business share was especially steep in Maine Township, where it was almost halved from making up 29.7 percent of the total township property assessment in 2004 to 15.5 percent in 2009.

"There has been a shift from businesses to the residential homeowner," acknowledged Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider.

The balance tipped outright in Elk Grove Township, where of the total assessed value 39 percent came from homeowners and 53.3 percent from commercial and industrial properties in 2004, but 48.4 percent from homeowners and 45 percent from businesses in 2009.

Schaumburg too was almost level in 2004 assessment at 47.1 percent for homeowners and 46.4 percent for businesses, but the gap widened to 56.1 percent from homeowners and 39.7 to commercial and industrial in 2009.

Former county Assessor James Houlihan has blamed the county's board of review for the shift, pointing to how this year the board granted $5 billion in assessment reductions, only $800 million of that to homeowners. Assessor Joseph Berrios, who recently moved up from the board of review, has blamed Houlihan's newly implemented 10-25 ordinance, setting assessment values at 10 percent of market value for residential property, 25 percent for businesses.

"We're taking a very hard look at that ordinance," said Berrios spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. "It's premature to place blame anywhere."

She pointed to how north and northwest suburban Cook, above North Avenue, is being reassessed this year, and Berrios has already instituted a reform including the market value on assessment notices sent to Leyden Township. "He believes homeowners should be paying no more than their fair share, absolutely, and this is his top priority," Quinn added.

"I'm not sure that it's worrisome," Valentine said, citing the number of homeowner exemptions granted, which has risen from 960,000 in 2004 to 1.1 million in 2009. Yet Schneider pointed out the 7 percent homeowner's exemption, while extended by the General Assembly earlier this year, is still being phased out.

Valentine, meanwhile, cited Civic Federation figures showing that, since 1994, residential properties have been assessed at a consistent 9 to 10 percent of market value, while businesses have seen their assessment level slide from 30 percent to about 20 percent of market value. "That is also an indication that there has been a shift in the burden of overall property value from commercial-industrial to residential," she added.

Yet that's not news to any homeowner who just received a big hike in 2009 second-installment tax bills, even as county tax revenue remained level and the Cook County government's $720 million tax levy has remained the same for 14 years.