We were warned a month ago that property taxes in Cook County would rise even though property values were down. Still, with tax bills due next week, there was no cushion that could soften the blow of my 18% tax increase, especially since our house lost 5% of its assessed value.
I’ve spent the week trying to figure out who is responsible for raising taxes in Cook County. The short answer is every taxing body, ranging from the Forest Preserve General Superintendent Arnold Randall (.68% of property tax bill) to the local elementary school board, which receives a whopping 37.6% of our property tax bills.
How it works in Cook County, as far as I can tell, is every local government taxing body submits its budget to the County, who then determines the pool of money needed by all 31 townships including the city. Since almost all property values decreased, there were fewer tax dollars going into the pool. This isn’t news. But instead of planning for the shortfall by trimming budgets, they increased the tax rate from 6.7% to 7.5%. In summary, if your home is worth less (note the space), your tax burden is greater. It’s a double shot right to the nuts. This myopic logic makes foreclosure more attractive for the individual homeowner, thereby creating an even bigger burden on the overtaxed community.
All I want to know is which figurehead, or which set of elected officials I can target my taxpayer ire in the next election? My hands are tied, my pockets drained, at least give me a target for my rage. Yet the property tax system in Illinois, and specifically Cook County, seems built quixotically to avoid any political responsibility. “The Cook County property tax system is unique in that it is riddled with confusion and is often inconsistent. In fact, former Assessor James M. Houlihan described the assessment process as a “Mystical Maze” in the February 26, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune,” says John P. Fitzgerald, a lawyer “serving commerce and industry” in Chicagoland. I don’t know if I’ve ever agreed with or cited a business lawyer, but it sure seems like the system is constructed to confuse.
If the Cook County Clerk David Orr and his office calculate tax rates, and Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and his office assesses property values, then who the hell actually sets the taxes? According to my “tax advocate” at Wheeling Township, the tax rate is determined by need, which is determined by school boards, village pension plans, road and bridge funds, and a host of other headless incidentals itemized on the tax bill. All in the name of a vibrant community. If you take a walk, they’ll tax your feet.
I accept my tax responsibility for community services as part of the social compact. But I’d also like some transparency and accountability. Everyone I’ve talked to, from my neighbor to my “tax advocate” shrug their shoulders, choking down the what-are-ya-gonna-do shit sandwich. I don’t want to Occupy Wall Street; I want to be able to occupy my goddamned house.
It appears at least one elected official feels my pain. In an effort to rid us of the secretive cronyism of the Stroger Jr. days, Cook County Board President Tori Preckwinkle has an interactive budget deficit website where County residents can see–and even weigh in–on what expenditures should be cut and what revenues should be raised. This interaction and information, along with the grassroots approach of writing and calling elected officials, from the township level to the state congressional representatives, may be a first step.
Here is a link if you live in Cook County to track down all of your elected officialshttp://www.cookcountyclerk.com/elections/deo/Pages/default.aspx
Here is the Cook County Board Budget proposal for 2012.