Seven years ago, Karim Chatriwala turned the key to open his version of the American Dream. The Pakistani immigrant opened up a Subway sandwich storefront in Morton Grove, a north suburb of Chicago, where he lives with his wife, two children and parents. With a wide network of friends and a place of worship right down the street, Chatriwala says the community has a lot to offer.
But the business owner also said that if his property taxes do not decrease, his increasing debt might force him to move away. He estimates he pays $1,200 per month and is barely keeping afloat. So Chatriwala went to his local township assessor’s office, seeking advice and raising concern. The assessor and his deputy answered his questions, and gave him information about how to ensure fair assessments in the coming year.
Elected officials and taxpayer advocates wish more residents did the same thing. They say there needs to be more interest from Cook County residents in understanding the complex property tax system, as well as more outreach and education so that fewer people end up feeling the painful crunch that Chatriwala experienced when his property taxes increased.
From a non-profit’s perspective
As the director for the Illinois chapter of the free market-based non-profit Americans For Prosperity, Joe Calomino travels the state of Illinois to “educate and empower citizens to hold elected officials accountable for how they spend our tax dollars.”
Calomino is adamant about the need to engage residents to ask important questions if the property tax system is to be simplified.
“People are upset because they pay a lot, and they want to know what they’re getting for their dollar if their homes' market value declined, but their property taxes are going up,” he said. “The public doesn’t understand how the forms of government go about producing levy requests.”
Calomino added that Illinois has more forms of government than most states in the country, meaning there are more bodies that can levy taxes and greater complexity within the system.
One of Calomino’s top priorities with Americans For Prosperity is “to consistently train the public to ask, ‘What are we getting for our tax dollar and where is our money going?’” In recent years, Calomino has organized property tax forums around the state with township assessors and other elected officials to address questions about the computation of residents’ property bills.
From an elected official’s perspective
Newly elected Cook County Board of Review (BOR) Commissioner Dan Patlak highlighted some similar goals when he sat down with Patch in early March. As a former township assessor in Cook County, he said he knows firsthand the confusion at the ground level.
“We are trying to get as much education out there as possible to as many people as we can,” Patlak said. “We recently hired someone who speaks Polish, and today 10 people came in asking for property appeals in Polish.”
Patlak also mentioned that collectively members of his staff spoke Hindi, Punjabi, Greek, French, Arabic and Spanish as language alternatives. He said the diverse range of languages makes the appeal process smoother.
When citizens begin to understand the issues surrounding Cook County property taxes, they are also better prepared to assess their own situations.
Chatriwala is an example of one inquiring citizen. “If I had this business in DuPage County, I wouldn’t be complaining because I would be paying $400 or $500 dollar per month in property taxes,” he said. “I have friends who own property in DuPage County, and when we compare apples to apples, property tax is much less in DuPage County.”
The impact of losing businesses in Cook County is another piece of the complicated property tax puzzle that Patlak says is important for residents to understand.
“Losing one business property is like losing two-and-a-half residential properties to us,” said Patlak, referring to the tiered system of assessment in Cook County that results in a disproportionate amount of tax revenue coming from businesses.
“What you see are big streets with great tracks of vacant property, so not only is there no place to shop conveniently, but little property tax from businesses in these communities,” he said.
“People need to know that when there is vacant commercial space, the property values goes down, and property taxes for residents go up to help pay for the tax burden of local taxing bodies like schools.”
So what do you do?
According to Calomino, it wouldn’t hurt to get a little fired up. “The public is not engaged,” he noted. “Big time.”
Calomino envisions a future with local activist watchdogs who can ask hard questions of local governments, which will in turn publish full reports of their spending online.
To that, Patlak said he’s working on the BOR’s website, which at the time of our interview, included dead links.
“We want the board to be a taxpayer's advocate; we aim to improve the website to make the appeal process more transparent for citizens,” he said. Patlak also mentioned seminars that he hosts around the county for residents as a way to spark engagement with residents.
So the next steps you can take:
- Sign up for your township assessor’s listserv emails to keep informed about meetings, and consider attending them when you can. The Cook County Assessor's Office directs you to your own township assessor here.
- If you’re hungry for more reading, check out the primers and research by The Civic Federation.
- Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) published the "State and Local Taxation" report, which offers another perspective.
- Check out the FAQ on the Cook County Assessor's Office website and/or the FAQ on the Cook County Board of Review website.
- Consider dropping by a local government, school, library or park board meeting to get elected officials' take on property taxes, spending and what they are doing to keep the local tax rate at a reasonable level.
When it comes to Cook County property bills, the cost of comprehension? Priceless.