Property tax day in Chicago

April 1, 2011 4:02:13 PM PDT
Nearly two weeks ahead of the national tax deadline, Cook County property owners made their first property tax installment payments Friday.

The Cook County Assessor says the process is never easy, but he intends to make clear what people are paying for - and perhaps less for - in the years ahead.

It is a day that many dread and others figure is no big deal because they pay their property taxes along with their mortgages, bit by bit, month by month.

Because of legislative delays in Springfield, the springtime ritual of paying the county the first installment for last year's taxes was something to slog through on a cold grey day.

Many people walked away from the wickets saying they felt they had been well treated even if they were paying for county taxes they thought were too high, too confusing, or too unfair given the plummeting value of real estate since properties were assessed in January 2007, before the Great Recession.

"I got three separate decreases and yet my tax bill stayed the same or even went up a little bit," said Jim Gonska. "It's very difficult to understand."

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, a longtime major player in Chicago Democratic Party politics, in last November's election won the office that determines how much people owe. Before that, he headed the county's board of review, which is where people go if they do not agree with what his current office says they owe.

He is promising clearer forms and more transparency.

"When economic times are bad, people expect government to cut back and, as Toni Preckwinkle has done - she shaved back the county budget," said Berrios. "We are all cooperating trying to help her and, in the long run, helping taxpayers."

An example is the senior's homeowner tax exemption. If you are a senior and you live in the home you own, you can be exempted from paying a portion of your county taxes. Berrios says he's sent out 300,000 notices to Chicagoans that he knows qualify. At this point, over 125,000 of them have not claimed their money, and could end up paying too much later this year, especially where values have dropped.

"We are seeing that market values are decreasing so assessed valuation will be decreasing so they should see a reduction in their property taxes."

Berrios says nobody likes paying taxes. He, however, did not have to pay anything to his office Friday because he rents an apartment from his sister.