Many Cook County homeowners opened their tax bills this week to find the amount they owed went up, even though the assessed value of their property went down.
In the Northwest suburbs, one reason is that commercial property owners who appealed their assessments got bigger breaks than homeowners.
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That shifts more of the tax burden onto residential property owners.
Northwest suburban commercial property owners who appealed their assessments received reductions averaging 14 percentage points more than residential property owners, according to a Daily Herald analysis of more than 377,000 property assessment appeals from the Cook County Board of Review.
Homeowners in Barrington, Elk Grove, Hanover, Maine, Palatine, Schaumburg and Wheeling townships averaged 10 percent reductions when they appealed their assessments last year with the Board of Review. Meanwhile, commercial property owners in those townships who appealed their assessments averaged 24 percent reductions in their property's taxable value.
In Barrington Township, the disparity is even wider. Commercial properties owners who appealed saw a 31.3 percent reduction on average, while residential property appeals resulted in an average reduction of 10.1 percent.
"We don't have a lot of commercial properties," said Barrington Township Assessor Amy Nykaza. "What little we do have, when it goes down 30 percent, it's going to have an effect on everyone else due to the fact that taxing bodies are relying on the revenue they receive from commercial properties."
And even as homeowners see the value of their properties dwindle, they're seeing their tax bills rise.
"The taxes aren't going away, they're just being shifted around," said Tom Smogolski, Hanover Township assessor.
Dan Patlak is one of three commissioners on the Cook County Board of Review, which rules on assessment appeals. He represents suburban townships, including those in Northwest Cook County. Patlak, formerly the Wheeling Township assessor, said the board's decisions are based on the evidence presented at the hearings.
"There's no advantage for commercial properties," Patlak contended. "A property should be assessed at whatever its value is and that's what we do at the board."
Patlak noted that Cook County -- unlike other counties in the state -- assesses commercial properties at a higher rate than residential properties. Commercial properties in Cook County are assessed at 25 percent of their actual value while residential properties are assessed at 10 percent. Residential property owners also are eligible for exemptions that lower assessments that commercial properties don't get.
While taxpayers complain they are being forced to shoulder a greater tax burden, experts contend the county's assessment and appeal process is the greater problem.
"It's a mess," said Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, "an unexplainable, complicated mess."
Pappas' office is one of essentially five layers of government that has its fingers in the assessment process. There's also the county assessor, the board of review, the county clerk and individual township assessors. A 2010 report by the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonpartisan government finance watchdog group, called the county's tax system "excessively complex" that "creates considerable economic distortion." The Civic Federation recommends consolidating some of the duties of the various agencies.
"The lines of responsibility are nearly impossible for ordinary taxpayers to discern and politicians exploit this fact to their political advantage," the report stated. "Decades of adding special treatments and revenue limitations have created a system that is fully understood by few individuals."
Even township assessors have problems keeping up.
"It's confusing as hell, to be frank with you," Smogolski said.
To determine tax bills, the county uses an ever-changing "multiplier" that essentially triples the assessed amount. Two different agencies -- the county assessor and the board of review -- hear appeals from taxpayers who think their property is valued too high, but only at specific and separate times of the year.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and I have a hard time figuring all of this out," said Jim Tobin, president of the Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America. "It's extremely complicated."
He'd like to see the state make the assessment process similar to how it's done in California. Property owners there pay 1 percent of the purchase price. That system would reduce, if not eliminate, all of the appeals hullabaloo, Tobin said.
It's not too late to appeal your property assessment, though it won't affect this year's tax bill.
The process has just started in some parts of the county, but not in the suburbs. The board of review has yet to set a date when it will start accepting complaints from suburban property owners. It's up to the taxpayers to keep watch.
The online complaint form is located at cookcountyboardofreview.com. Township assessors are available to help taxpayers gather details to support their appeals as well.
Some critics say the only way to fix the appeals process is to do away with it, and create an assessment system that's fair and evenhanded from the start. As it stands, the appeals process invalidates the work that went into the original assessment, said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation. Only those with the time and wherewithal to file appeals benefit.
"It's one of the rare occasions where it starts with the premise that government is wrong," Msall said.