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updated: 6/3/2012 7:49 AM

Cook County property taxpayers can expect earlier tax bills

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Cook County property owners this year can expect a surprise when the second installment of tax bills arrive: They will be on time.

Those involved in the process expect the second installment of 2011 taxes payable this year will be in the hands of taxpayers on or about July 1, months ahead of what has been typical and the earliest in decades.

"The county offices that have to do with revenue have been focusing on something that hasn't been done in 34 years or so and that's getting the tax bills out on the date as designated in state legislation and that's July 1," said Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Dan Patlak of Wheeling.

Late bills means late payments and that can present difficulty for some taxing agencies, which have to borrow money to bridge the gap or use reserves that might otherwise gather interest.

But bills that arrive on time could pose an issue for some taxpayers who don't have the payments taken out in escrow and have to come up with the cash earlier, said Ali ElSaffar, president of the Cook County Township Assessors Association and Oak Park Township assessor.

"The transition is the toughest part," he said.

Some taxpayers also may have to seek "certificates of error" to get homeowner or senior exemptions, which needed to be claimed earlier this year as the process was accelerated, he said.

The Board of Review, which resolves property tax appeals, is part of a process that allows others down the line to set tax rates and calculate the bills. Tax bills can't be issued until the assessed value of all property parcels -- about 1.8 million of them in Cook County -- is determined and every appeal resolved.

Once that happens, the Illinois Department of Revenue sets the multiplier, which is intended to ensure all properties are assessed at the same level of market value. Last year that was announced on Aug. 10. This year it was May 11, according to Sue Hofer, department spokeswoman.

From there, the Cook County clerk calculates the tax rates based on the values and the amount of money taxing bodies request. That information is forwarded to the Cook County treasurer, which determines the individual bills and sends them out.

Patlak, who took office in December 2010 and faces a challenge from Democrat Casey Griffin in the November general election, said cooperative effort among taxing agencies has put the system back on track.

"The plan is we're going to do this every year. It's not a one-time thing. We'll have commitments where there haven't been for the last 34 years."

For example, the introduction of online appeals, which accounted for about a quarter of the total 341,000 appeals, freed time for employees to do other tasks, though "a lot of overtime" was still needed to reach the July 1 mark, he said.

Two years ago, the second installment of bills came out in November and were due in mid-December. This year, the second half of the bill will be due Aug. 1, the earliest mailing and due date in decades.

State law mandates the bills be paid by Aug. 1, Hanover Township Assessor Thomas S. Smogolski informed constituents last month. But that law has not consistently been honored, he said.

Patlak said a study of taxing districts showed the impact of late bills was $3 million a month, not including interest or fees associated with borrowing.

The Des Plaines Public Library in 2010 voted to close one day a week if it didn't receive the tax funds but managed to avert that possibility. The library is part of the city's property tax levy but budgets independently.

"In 2010, when the tax bills were so late, we did run into some cash flow problems," said George Magerl, library board president. "It's very inconvenient if you're working on a tight budget."

He said it would be a "big benefit" to get the tax revenue earlier.

Maine Township High School District 207 gets about 80 percent of its $125 million budget from property tax revenues. Though it has not had to borrow money, the district has used diminishing reserves to cover the gap.

"There are school districts that go to short-term borrowing when they don't get the payment on time," said Edward B. Mueller III, a longtime board member and former president.

"The fact that they're going to be on time will be welcome (although) the interest rates (on investments) are extremely low," he added.

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