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Dubious Assessments

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To the editor:

A significant number of the assertions made in Ben Joravsky's column regarding Mayor Daley's record and actions on property taxes (The Works, May 12) were inaccurate and must be corrected.

The article's main misrepresentation is that Mayor Daley did not actively participate in the fight to extend the 7 percent cap on property assessments. In fact, the opposite is true. In March 2006 he coordinated meetings with leadership in the General Assembly, aldermen, and staff to urge them to adopt the legislation extending the cap. This spring the mayor's staff testified or appeared as a proponent in favor of the legislation at every committee hearing in Springfield at which it was considered and worked with legislators to answer questions they had. The mayor has held numerous public news conferences advocating immediate passage of the legislation. As recently as April 26 he publicly called for an extension of the 7 percent cap by the legislature.

In addition, the article incorrectly presents statistics, generalizes facts, and does not challenge some key misconceptions, thereby creating an inaccurate picture of the property tax system. For example, the article says that the tax rate stays roughly the same year after year. Between 1996 and 2004, the aggregate tax rate for the city of Chicago has actually dropped from 9.45 to 6.28 percent, a 34 percent decline. It also says the legislation "gave no protection to commercial property owners, many of whose taxes rose considerably." This is an overgeneralization, given that according to the Cook County assessor's office many commercial properties have seen limited valuation growth since 2000. As the Civic Federation confirmed, the 7 percent cap only increased taxes slightly for commercial taxpayers (by 2.4 percent), where otherwise they would have seen a 2 percent decrease.

Finally, the article says that large apartment buildings are considered commercial property. In fact, large apartment buildings are considered Class 3 under the Cook County classification system, and Mayor Daley was recently instrumental in lowering the assessment for that class.

This recent support of the 7 percent cap is in addition to Mayor Daley's other numerous efforts to fix the property tax system. Since being elected in 1989 he has worked toward major changes to the property tax system in order to keep Chicago's neighborhoods affordable for everyone. In the early 1990s he advocated for an increase in the amount of money going to local education through a property tax swap. In 1993 and 1995, he restructured the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Public Schools in order to slow down escalating property tax costs. In his 2004 State of the City address, Mayor Daley called for a restructuring of the property tax assessment system. In addition, he developed the Chicago Homeowner's Assistance Program; established the Chicago Tax Assistance Center, which has helped more than 50,000 residents with their property tax bills; limited the increase in the Chicago property tax levy to approximately 1 percent a year; and worked with the Metropolitan Mayors' Caucus to develop a set of principles for reforming the way the state funds education.

As Mayor Daley has said numerous times, the property tax system needs to be fixed. Before that happens, we must ensure that those who are most vulnerable to rising assessments are protected. The 7 percent cap does that in a way that protects those most vulnerable: low-income residents, long-term residents, and seniors. Mayor Daley supports an extension of the 7 percent cap, and has worked and will continue to work in Springfield toward its passage.

Myer Blank

Director, Chicago Tax Assistance Center

Ben Joravsky replies:

It might not be evident from his job title, but Myer Blank is a city employee who works out of the mayor's Office of Budget and Management.

Mayor Daley was traveling in the Middle East when the home owners' exemption failed in the statehouse. Several legislators and statehouse observers told me that he was a nonfactor in the matter. He didn't even bother to lobby for the exemption, though legislators tell me they expect him to take a more active role when the matter arises in the fall--just a few months before the next mayoral election.

I understand that the tax rate has dropped over the last decade. But that only underscores the central point of my article, which is that rising assessments have served to raise property taxes while enabling the city and Mayor Daley to claim that they're holding the line on tax increases.

Blank misrepresents the Civic Federation report, which did not find that the 7 percent cap increased commercial property taxes only slightly. Instead the report found that the "total tax amount owed by all other classes of property combined [emphasis added] increased by 2.4 percent, but would have otherwise decreased by 2.0 percent in 2003." These classifications include vacant properties, not-for-profit properties, and multifamily residential properties as well as industrial and commercial properties. (You can find the federation's report at www.civicfed.org.) As commercial property owners throughout the city will tell you, many were hit hard during the last assessment, with tax increases reaching as high as 100 percent in some north-side neighborhoods.

Finally, it's not mistaken to say that the so-called tax cap gave no protection to commercial property owners. The exemption was limited to home owners.

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