As we head into another round of the never-ending fight over the so-called 7 percent property tax cap, I think it's wise for Chicagoans to brace themselves for a significant rise in taxes when the next installment comes out this summer.
This realization hit me yet again at a press conference put together yesterday by Cook County assessor James Houlihan and several ministers from around the city. Held on the steps of First Baptist Congregational, at Washington and Ashland, it was intended as a show of support for the cap--which in fact is not a cap at all but a home owner's exemption of $20,000. Passed in 2004 to help limit the hit taxpayers were taking as a result of rising reassessments, the "cap" is set to expire this year, in which case the home owner's exemption would plummet back down to $4,500.
It's not as though Houlihan's press conference was without heavy hitters. There was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who spoke pretty accurately about our property tax system when he said, "There's always some scheme afoot that rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor." But it wasn't so much who was there as who wasn't--Mayor Daley--that mattered. Despite the mayor's rhetoric about how he worries John and Jane Bungalow may get taxed out of their longtime family homes, he's never really lifted a finger to push tax relief through the Illinois General Assembly.
He was supposed to show up at yesterday's press conference, or at least send a representative. But no one from the mayor's office came. Instead Daley hastily put together his own press conference unveiling a new proposal for an independent police oversight board. Set at City Hall at the same time as Houlihan's press conference, it drew most of the mainstream media away and became front-page news. There was next to nothing about Houlihan's press conference.
It's unfortunate that the property tax issue doesn't receive more attention. Sure, it's complicated; sure, there are sexier topics. But it's hardly as though this is a minor issue without relevance to anyone's life. By Houlihan's calculations, taxes on the west and south sides could more than double without the tax cap. I've been studying the impact of coming tax bills on the west side, where land values are soaring because of approaching gentrification. Come August, people can expect to get tax bills of upwards of $5,000, nearly four times what they had to pay last year. If I were cynical, I'd say the rising property taxes were all part of the mayor's plan to force west-side homeowners into foreclosure, so the city can claim their tax-delinquent property and auction it off for cheap to well-connected developers.
In actuality, Daley's probably playing a different game, holding back his support for the 7 percent cap until he sees how much school funding the state will pony up for. Only after that's decided will Daley will know how much of a property tax break he's willing to give the little people. Don't expect much.