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posted: 6/15/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: The case for simplifying Cook's tax process

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It's a lesson in the dangers of unintended consequences, by nearly every account. And if you own a home in suburban Cook County, you're probably paying more as a result.

A change in Cook County's property tax assessment system in 2008, proposed by then-Assessor James Houlihan and approved by the county board, was the first in a series of toppling dominoes that resulted in residential taxpayers in the county's suburbs shouldering an increasing tax load and nonresidential taxpayers paying less.

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Daily Herald Tax Watchdog Columnist Jake Griffin showed the fallout this week when he compared the tax dollars schools got from residential taxpayers vs. nonresidential taxpayers in 2008 and 2009, the latest years available. The amount collected from residential taxpayers for schools in Northwest Cook County grew as much as 6.7 percentage points in that one year, with residents in Schaumburg Elementary District 54, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, River Trails Elementary District 26 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 among the hardest hit. Homeowners' share of the taxes paid to District 54, for instance, went up from 45.8 percent in 2008 to 51.3 percent in 2009, a $10 million difference.

For schools in DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, the ratio between residential and nonresidential taxpayers stayed nearly level.

The fact that some Cook County tax officials were surprised by Griffin's findings leads to one obvious conclusion: The county's tax process needs simplifying. Cook County is alone in Illinois in assessing residential and nonresidential property at different rates, with the 2008 changes in those levels leading to the increased burden for homeowners.

But that's not a quick fix, and it's natural to be wary of new unintended results.

Still, there are other important steps. One is to make it easier -- and more fair -- for homeowners to appeal tax assessments.

Nonresidential property owners, realizing that one effect of the 2008 changes was inflated market value, appealed their assessments in droves. Homeowners were less likely to appeal.

And commercial and business property owners who appealed won reductions that were 14 percentage points more than those of residential property owners who appealed.

For homeowners, the first step toward change is to learn about Cook County's tax system (the Civic Federation at civicfed.org is a good source.) Then, consider appealing your own property assessment. Your township assessor can help, or you can do it online at cookcountyassessor.com (Monday's the deadline for Palatine Township residents). You'll end up with a greater understanding of what could and should change -- and maybe get a tax reduction to boot.

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