Speaking Out: How your property taxes are assessed -- and how to appeal them
This time of year after our real estate tax bills come out, we all tend to wonder "how did these bills get so high?" We all want the services that are paid for with the money from those bills, but these bills tend to be getting higher and higher, and for some make it quite hard to keep up.
Do we understand how these bills come about and is there anything we can do about them?
There are several components of those bills. There are the assessed valuations. There are the costs of our local governments. And there are the facts and actions that impact those costs. And then what if anything can we do to have an impact on these components.
The assessed valuations are a double-edged sword. We all want the values of our homes to increase, since for many of us, our homes are one of our key investments. On the other hand, for tax purposes we want our values to be lower or at least as low as possible. With the recent real estate market., and the competition among buyers, many homes have been selling for top dollar, and beware, that can lead to higher assessed values. Though they are not always done by the standard formulas, those formulas are an indicator. In Cook County homes are supposed to be assessed at around 10% of market value and in Lake and other collar counties they are supposed to be assessed at around 33% of market value. I know the different approaches are confusing but that is a subject for another day. As a general rule comparable homes are supposed to be assessed at similar levels. If you are buying a new home you also want to do your best not to get stuck with higher taxes after closing that your seller should have given you more credits for at closing. Be sure your attorneys pay attention to your tax prorations to make sure you get a fair deal taking into consideration Homeowners exemptions, Senior exemptions and freezes. Those exemptions are important and you should pay attention to make sure you are getting all the exemptions you are entitle to, since that brings down your taxes. You would be surprised how many people who are not getting homeowners exemptions for homes they are living in or seniors over 65 who are not getting senior exemptions. Check your bills and apply for those exemptions if you are entitle and not getting them. You can also go back usually around 3 years and even recoup refunds through certificates of error. On the assessed value front, if your assessed value on your bills exceed the percentage of market value noted above you should be appealing your assessed values either your self or through an appeals firm or attorney. Likewise if you find your assessed value is out of line compared to other similar homes, you also may have a case for an appeal. Yes, there are ways you can bring down your taxes by looking at exemptions and assessed values.
As for the costs of local government including our villages and schools and other local taxing bodies, most suburban taxing bodies are pretty responsible in putting together their budgets. Costs do generally increase from year to year and governments need to be competitive and fair to insure they can staff and provide the services the community needs and expects. Nevertheless, you can have an impact by looking at budgets and majors purchases and hiring decisions and urging your local bodies to get the most bang for the buck. Likewise different uses of property can have impacts, with some generating more revenue and others generating more costs. This is often a balancing of the pros and cons on which most villages do a pretty good job. That does not mean that you should not pay attention. You can have an impact and should speak up if you believe you have sound reasons for your positions. On the other hand just speaking out because you don't want some project near you ignores that your local government usually will try to make a decision based on what is in the best interest of the community as a whole. On certain costs it is a matter of priorities on what is needed most as opposed to other things which would be nice. Those priorities are things you can and should speak out about to help local officials weigh where the community stands. Your input can make a difference in the cost of government, and in turn your tax bills.
Not to be overlooked are outside facts and forces that affect the cost of government. Decisions of the marketplace often determine what businesses are in a community and what types of revenues are generated through vehicles like sales taxes. As residents you can have a positive input by supporting local businesses and establishments since that may help put revenue in local coffers to help reduce reliance on property taxes. Decisions made in Springfield can have a major impact on the cost of government. Creating mandates without funding them merely requires local taxpayers to pick up the tab on their tax bills. There may be certain mandates that are in the public interest, but generally requiring something without providing the funding is just shifting the cost. A case in point may be pension or related benefits where Springfield says yes to increased benefits that have to be paid at the local level. Often times while local governments are holding the line, these passed on costs become millions of dollars that have to be added to local tax bills. Keep your eyes open for such actions in Springfield and speak out or they may come back to bite a chunk out of your wallets in increased taxes. Funding levels are also a key component. When Springfield talks about cutting the Distributive Fund which are local shares of income taxes, speak up, or you will be paying more locally. A big-ticket item is of course is our schools which represent a big portion of our tax bills. Illinois does not rank high in funding for schools, though there have been some positive movement. We are over reliant on property taxes to support our schools compared to most other states. Until Illinois can do significantly better, significant reductions in property taxes will not be seen. This is a big challenge due to other fixed costs, especially pensions and the limitations on raising revenue without hurting many who cannot afford it, That is one of the reasons I was a strong proponent of the Fair Tax which was not approved. I hope we can push again for such tax changes to make our system more fair and urge citizens to support it. Similarly we need to do something on the Pensions. Reamortization ideas would help free up more cash annually to address education and other needs. Other Pension changes need to be made that respect the rights of pension members under our Constitution A progressive income tax, pension reforms and education funding and Real estate tax reductions are all tied together. They are all somewhat dependent on each other. I urge all to realize that, and to become advocates on all those fronts. We can do something about our real estate taxes, but we need to understand it will take work on many fronts. We can do this and we sure ought to try.
• Elliott Hartstein of Northbrook is an attorney and a former Buffalo Grove village president. If you are interested in possibly discussing this topic further over Zoom with Elliott and others, you can email him at email@example.com.