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Essential Background on Rahm’s Potential Property Tax Hike

Chicago has low property taxes compared to the rest of the state, but the state has high property taxes compared to the rest of the U.S. Where do we stand?

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Late last night the Tribune got word that the mayor is “set to call for the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history to raise enough money to make a major pension payment for police and firefighters next year.” The mayor had made noise about a $250 million increase; it could be twice that.

It’s a big scoop… but also completely unsurprising. A property tax increase wasn’t just expected—a property tax of exactly this magnitude, for exactly this purpose, was expected. It was so expected that in July, Crain’s reporter Thomas A. Corfman ran the numbers on three potential property-tax increase scenarios. By Fran Spielman’s calculations, the mayor’s proposal could result in higher increases than Corfman predicted—but the process hasn’t even begun. Joe Moreno has, just today, floated the idea of reducing the burden on owner-occupied households earning less than $100,000. Either way, Corfman’s analysis is well worth reading, as it puts the city’s current property-tax rate, and potential hikes, in recent historical context.

Beyond that, some broader financial and political context:

Chicago Already Has a Low Property Tax Rate

Via Luke Seemann, this chart from the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois puts Chicago in its state context. As of 2010, Chicago ranked dead last among 89 Illinois cities for the tax bill on a $250,000 home, at $3,196. As of 2013, Chicago had the 265th lowest aggregate property tax rate out of 276 Illinois towns. City property taxes have been slowly increasing, but as of June of this year, the tax bill on a $199,000 home in Chicago was $1,500 lower than a $163,000 home in the south suburbs.

Chicago Has an Average to Above-Average Rate Nationwide

Even though Chicago has lower property taxes than virtually everywhere in the state, the state itself has very high property tax rates, so another means of comparison is to other cities across the country. The most thorough nationwide comparison I’ve found comes from the Lincoln Institute—as of 2014, Chicago was slightly above average for a $150k house (net tax of $2,438 compared to an average of $2,242), lower than Baltimore and Milwaukee but higher than Los Angeles and New York City. Chicago also ranked above average for a $300k house (net tax of $5,354 compared to an average of $4,650).

Right now, Chicago’s homestead property taxes are pretty close to Miami’s; guesstimating from the numbers floating around on Emanuel’s proposal, Chicago would creep up towards or in the top 10 cities, comparable to Portland, Dallas, Austin, Baltimore, or Omaha.

The Rate Has Remained Low Because of Exemptions

One of the reasons that Chicago’s property-tax burden has remained low, comparatively speaking, is the expansion of exemptions; by the Civic Federation’s calculations, exemptions rose from five percent of gross equalized assessed value in 1999 to 12.6 percent in 2008, mostly on the back of the Senior Citizens Assessment Freeze Exemption. They have a different idea, one in keeping with Joe Moreno’s proposal:

The Civic Federation believes that the most effective way to target property tax relief to homeowners with the least ability to pay is a means-tested “circuit breaker” administered by the State of Illinois through the state income tax. A property tax circuit breaker is a program designed to provide relief when a person’s property tax liability exceeds a certain percentage of their annual income. As of 2008, 33 states including Illinois had programs that operated as circuit breakers but only 12 states provided the circuit breaker to people of all ages.18 In Illinois, applicants must be at least 65 years old or disabled in order to apply for the income-based grant.

This Was Inevitable

Eric Zorn was right: property taxes were going to go up, no matter what was said on the campaign trail. And he’s got more numbers to explain why that was the case.

The good news?

We’re not going bankrupt.

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