By Frank Melcori
The day after I returned from India, I received a flyer announcing "Senator Jesus Garcia's Property Tax Assessment Appeal Alert," a public meeting to explain how Pilsen residents could challenge their property-tax assessment if they think it's too high. County officials would be there to detail the ins and outs of the process, and politicians would get to show their faces and remind their constituency that it's not being ignored.
Through jet-lagged eyes, I read the notice. I should go. Things are changing so fast in Pilsen--I could wake up one morning to find I can no longer afford my house. In 1995 my property taxes jumped by a quarter. How much higher could they go? For years people have been saying that Pilsen will eventually go the way of Wicker Park and Taylor Street. When the old Maxwell Street Market closed, they thought it was the beginning of the end. The end seems a little more real now. This notice is just one more sign.
I'm wide awake at four in the morning, so I put on my jacket, shove the notice into my pocket, and go for a walk. The streets are wet and empty. In India I'd be carefully stepping over people sleeping on the sidewalk. My taxes go up, someone might be stepping over me. I stand under a streetlamp and pull out the notice. I stare at it, but I'm actually more concerned about my birthday, which will be on the day after the tax meeting...tomorrow, in fact. In a sense I feel cheated. My girlfriend is on call at the hospital that morning, so I'll be up at 3 AM with no place to go and no one to celebrate with.
I don't know why it bothers me. I'll only be 54, not an important year. I'll go out to buy the paper, see what my horoscope says. I don't really believe in astrology, but it can't hurt. In India they believe in all sorts of things--the elephant god Ganesh, the god of good fortune, the remover of obstacles. Maybe Ganesh can lower my taxes, I say to myself as I read the flyer again. A squad car passes and the cops give me the eye--two young Latino guys. When they were kids, they might have been chased by the cops.
That night my friend Lionel and I go to Saint Procopius School at 16th and Allport, where Jesus Garcia is holding his Tax Alert Forum. The meeting has been called for 6:30, but I'll be surprised if it starts by 7. It's hot in the gym. Tired city and county officials slouch in, their colognes mingling with the fetid air. Feeling jet-lagged, I close my eyes. Briefcases snap open. The gym is filling up.
"This is bullshit!"
"All bullshit, vato!"
"A done deal."
"They will learn one day to listen to us."
"See, you press the knob on the watch, and it gives out the time in Italian."
I open my eyes and see the big shots coming in. Lots of leather. Buttons proclaiming this and that. I would never pin anything to a leather jacket. Finally, Garcia walks to the front table. He's dressed conservatively in a plain black suit with a matching tie and white shirt. I voted for this guy, but this is the first time I've seen him in person. He seems sincere enough. A lot of people have shown up, and this fact is not lost on the senator. There are TV cameras, too; I can feel their lights bearing down on my back. Clutching my tax appeal form and a little statue of Ganesh that I'd bought in India, I hang on to Garcia's opening words.
"Thank you for attending our property-tax community forum today. We organized this meeting in response to your concerns about escalating property taxes."
Introductions are made, and one county official defines the major criteria for assessing taxes. He explains everything in both English and Spanish, which, though necessary, drags out the proceedings. I lean over to my friend. "This guy's tie is awful," I say. I'm still thinking about my birthday.
"There are three, maybe four important things that go into the tax appraisal of each house: the age of the house, number of square feet, the neighborhood, and recent sales of comparable property. Obviously there are others, but these four are the most critical in your assessment. We have 1.6 million pieces of property here in Cook County. Obviously we don't or can't appraise each and every one. So what we do is a mass appraisal. An individual piece of property is appraised only when an appeal is made."
He mentions the options available if our applications are rejected. You can appeal twice to the assessment office, once to the board of tax appeals, and, finally--I'm a bit fuzzy on the last one. He says you can also defer paying your property taxes if you make less than $25,000 and are having financial difficulties.
Then there are the exemptions. I can cut $250 off my yearly tax bill just because I own my home. Other members of the panel chip in--there are more exemptions, if you qualify. I shake my head. It's hard to believe that just two days earlier I was walking through the crowded streets and bazaars of Delhi, carried away by the color and excitement. I can't recall thinking about my house, let alone my taxes.
I go to the adjoining room to file my tax appeal, though I have no immediate justification for doing so. A clerk leaps to my assistance when he hears I speak English. He apparently doesn't speak Spanish and has been sitting around with nothing to do; he's been of no use to the people waiting in line. He asks why I want to appeal, and I say that I want to get my property appraised before the new TIF is approved and UIC expands southward. I'm afraid that they will make my tax bill much higher. He jives me with his bureaucratic spiel, but he knows I'm enjoying his style. I study his tailored suit while he talks.
"Now let me explain a little about TIF," he says. "TIF is a method of financing that allows the local government to collect property taxes attributable--hope that word isn't too big--attributable to new development in a specific area, and then those tax revenues are used to finance improvements in the infrastructure--you know, roads and sewers. Has the city been active on your street? Sidewalks, things like that?"
"Yeah, they filled mine in a few months ago before I left town."
"Oh yeah? Vacation?"
"India! Really? Well, anyway, see, your sidewalk is an example of what I mean here..."
The vaulted sidewalk in front of my house had collapsed long before I moved there in 1991. It was only fixed recently, after more than six years of complaining to my alderman. I start to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"Politicians all run to the nearest microphone whenever there's the slightest chance of taking credit for something they should be doing anyway."
"Now hold on a second," he says. "Be a little fair here. Maybe you are owed certain services, but they still cost money. TIF is just one way of paying. Not every neighborhood can help itself, and not every neighborhood cares enough to help itself."
"So what about the people who will lose their homes because they can't pay higher taxes?"
"You don't know that for sure, and these people--I know this sounds awful to say--but these people will get a good price in the event they have to sell."
"In the event they have to sell? You want to tell these people here that? In the event they have to sell? These folks don't want to sell. I'm assuming you know that."
The official looks at me and gives me a smile. I have to admit it's winning. I complete my appeal form, thank the guy, and head back to the gym.
I'm still thinking about my birthday, what I should have for breakfast. The last time I was in India, I missed the pig--that is, pork--much to the dismay of the Muslim who shared my return flight. I had a bacon sandwich as soon as I got home. This trip I didn't miss any food in particular, so the menu in my mind's eye is blank. Why did I have this morbid desire to celebrate my birthday? Every birthday makes me think it's finally going to be my big year. Who knows? Maybe this will be the one.
Garcia thanks the audience for its patience and opens the meeting for a question-and-answer session. I walk up to the microphone and begin to run my yap. I go on about how it's all well and good to have this session, but what, in fact, is he planning to do to protect us from higher taxes after the TIF is in place and UIC expands into Pilsen looking for property? With the TIF, the city will lure God knows who to develop God knows what. When the last nail is driven and the last bush planted, will we be paying higher property taxes? And what was Garcia going to do about it? We could all see the city and the university executing a classic pincers move, like in one of those World War II documentaries on public TV.
"Now, Senator Garcia, what do you propose to do?"
Garcia rises and proceeds to assure me of the plans he has in motion to introduce stopgaps on behalf of the taxpayers. Then he utters an impossibly long final sentence, invoking all but the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, and chokes out the final words, "for the working men and women of this city." The crowd loves it. They had come to hear those very words. Garcia, microphone in hand, wipes his brow. I even forget about my birthday.
My friend Lionel approaches the microphone. Though he's a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, he's been strangely quiet throughout the session. He encourages the officials at the table to take a walk around Pilsen to get reacquainted with the area. While they're planning their tax strategies, the sidewalks around our homes are being repaired by city workers who spend half the day sitting in cars doing nothing. "Yes, an old complaint," he acknowledges. "But the city shouldn't be throwing tax money away on people who don't do their jobs." He then translates all of this into Spanish. The crowd roars its approval.
Lionel says there are several abandoned houses in the neighborhood. "Thank God for them because their selling price is low enough to keep down our own property taxes." Once again the crowd cheers as he translates this into Spanish. Garcia stands and motions for Lionel to end his comments. Other residents get up to express their fears of being forced out. One says ominously, "Some of you sitting here now won't have your houses in five years. You can count on that!" Garcia quickly calls the meeting to a close.
On the way home I wonder what good came out of the meeting. I shrug. "Well, we got to appeal."
"Yeah, that's true," says Lionel.
"Maybe we went there just to hear ourselves talk."
"May as well. Nobody else wants to hear us."
"I should have told everyone that tomorrow is my birthday. Maybe Senator Garcia would've taken me out to breakfast, you know, some huevos rancheros."
Lionel puts his arm around me and pinches my cheek. "Poor little guy. Got nobody to hang out with on his birthday."
Actually, that's not true, I tell him. I could call a lot of people.
The morning rises gray and suspicious. I decide to go for a walk around the neighborhood, check out the property values. It's rainy and cold, and the light is just breaking. I love this time of day, when the city is waking. I loved walking the streets of Delhi in the early dawn. People on the sidewalk would hang on to that last minute of warmth under their shawls before they had to confront the cold day. You'd see tiny little fires of twigs or dung on the street.
I walk west on 18th Street from Halsted to Racine. They're baking bread and cakes in the panaderia. I stop and look inside. The store is closed, but you can see workers in the kitchen through the steamy window. Now that wouldn't be so bad for breakfast. I'll just hang out here until the bakery opens, grab some fresh coffee and hot rolls, and there you go--happy birthday!
A man pushes a shopping cart full of scrap down Morgan Street. He's probably on his way to the recycling place on Cermak and Halsted. Then he might stop by the Snacktime Diner next door for coffee. He has a fire going in a paint can that's suspended from the handle of his cart. Imagine that, carrying your warmth with you. We waved to each other.
I buy a newspaper and look at my horoscope. It says I will make a lot of money, achieve fame, and fall in love, though I should watch my health. April is going to be my month. I'd better get cracking. Maybe this will finally be my year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Peter Bareras.