The Cook County property tax system is rapidly changing and contains numerous pitfalls for the unwary. Cook County has over 1,600,000 real estate parcels and is the second largest assessment district in the United States. The accuracy and predictability of its assessment practices has a direct impact on the economic vitality of the city of Chicago and it’s Cook County suburbs; and indirectly affects the vitality of the entire Chicago megalopolis.
A Brief History of PropertyTaxation in Cook County
The first Cook County assessment dates back to 1836 when the city of Chicago levied its first property tax. One of the first lawyers to ever contest a Cook County assessment was Abraham Lincoln, on behalf of the Illinois Central Railroad. The Illinois Constitution of 1870 formally authorized a tax on property and required that it be applied uniformly. The property tax soon became a chief source of revenue for the state of Illinois as well as local government.
The real estate market collapsed in 1932 and with it went the property tax system. In response, the General Assembly abolished the state property tax and instead enacted a sales tax to fund state government. The property tax was left to fund local government and it was decreed that all counties with a population of 250,000 or more would have an Assessor.
Cook County Assessors
J.L. Jacobs: 1932 to 1934
John S. Clark: 1934 to 1954
Frank Keenan: 1954 to 1958,
John McGuane: 1958
P.J. Cullerton: 1958 to 1974,
Thomas M. Tully: 1974 to 1978,
Thomas C. Hynes: 1978 to 1997,
James M. Houlihan: 1997 to 2010,
Joseph A. Berrios: 2010 to 2018,
The Modern Cook County Property Tax System
The Cook County property tax system has been known to be inconsistent. In the February 26, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune, the then assessor, James M. Houlihan, described his assessment process as a “Mystical Maze”. Nobody ever determined if he was serious.
What makes Cook County’s tax system so unique is that internal procedures and legislation, designed to further confuse everyone, is constantly being proposed. The effect is to simply bounce the tax burden off of one group of unsuspecting taxpayers onto another group of unsuspecting taxpayers.
The Future Cook County Tax System
The property tax will continue to provide the bulk of local government funding far into the future. Future property tax increases will be in the form of more aggressive assessment increases and rate increases.
Meanwhile, revenue shortfalls will be made up via a greater reliance on the state income tax, state and local sales/use taxes, real estate transfer taxes, taxes on fuel, tobacco, alcohol, hotels, entertainment, the Internet, red light cameras, speeding cameras, leases, gambling, parking, tuition, marijuana, a local income tax and perhaps even an intangible tax. The possibilities are endless.
Excessive government spending is the only cause of high taxes. It is doubtful as to whether voters will ever directly confront the problem of excessive government spending until there is a catastrophic financial crisis.