With no apologies for the modest level of assistance, the City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a $20 million property tax rebate to inoculate the mayor and aldermen from at least some of the political fallout from a record property tax increase.
The average rebate for the 155,000 eligible households will be $150. Senior citizens who own homes where the equalized assessed value has increased by 30 percent or more could get up to $300.
That’s not a lot of money. It won’t be the difference between keeping your home or having to move out of a hot neighborhood.
But when the city’s preferred plan to double the homeowner’s exemption fell flat in Springfield, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen vowed to replace it with a token rebate. The plan unanimously approved Wednesday fulfills that promise.
“At one level, you can say $150 to $200 is not a lot of money. On another level, if you’re trying to buy school supplies or a new outfit for your child to start the school year, this is a lot of money,” Emanuel said.
“If you’re trying to make ends meet, pay utility bills so they don’t cut into other things that you would like to do for your family this summer, this is a lot of money. And it helps people, very importantly our seniors who are on fixed incomes.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) acknowledged that he would have preferred a $35 million to $50 million rebate that included renters. But an average rebate of $150 is “nothing to sneeze at.”
“It’s a pair of shoes. . . . It’s food on the table” for a needy family, Ramirez-Rosa said.
The rebate will be paid for with $20 million of transfer tax money generated by the sale of the Chicago Skyway.
Emanuel took a bow for that as well.
The mayor said he told the buyer and seller they owed the city of Chicago its fair share.
“They were not inclined to do it at first,” Emanuel said. “But that produced the $20 million to fund the homeowner’s rebate. It’s being aggressive on behalf of the taxpayers.”
The vote Wednesday sets the stage for a whirlwind outreach and 60-day application process culminating in rebate checks in time for the holidays.
To appease aldermen whose phones have been ringing off the hook from angry homeowners, Emanuel agreed to sweeten the pot for seniors by $50.
He also added an “extraordinary hardship” clause that allows Budget Director Alex Holt to issue rebates that exceed the maximum ceiling — $200 for the average household and $350 for seniors — if homeowners are in danger of losing their homes because of the double-whammy of rising property taxes and increased assessments. The enhanced grant “shall not exceed the amount of that homeowner’s property tax increase,” the ordinance states.
The $20 million cost of the rebates assumes that every one of the roughly 155,000 eligible households with incomes under $75,000 takes advantage of the city’s offer.
Past history argues otherwise.
In 2010, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley set aside $35 million for rebate checks. In the end, only $2.1 million was distributed. Most homeowners didn’t bother to apply.
Emanuel hopes to break that mold by hiring community groups, housing organizations and “places of worship” to spread the word. He also plans to use “new technology, including texting, to remind people that this rebate is for you.”
“The rebate is not to be there on the books and then, with a nod and a wink, you hope nobody takes it. It’s there to alleviate any financial strain. And we’re gonna make sure that’s what happens when we do it,” the mayor said.
While his budget director opened the door to extending the rebate to renters, Emanuel sloughed off that demand. He has more important concerns.
“Before we talk about who else, I’ve got to make sure that the $20 million that we worked hard to make sure that the owners of the Skyway and parking garages paid gets used by our senior citizens and those on fixed incomes or incomes under a tremendous amount of financial stress,” he said.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall has said he appreciates the city’s “desire to reduce the impact of the more than $800 million in potential property tax increases to be implemented over several years” to save police, fire and teachers pension funds.
But he has questioned whether it’s worth the trouble.
“This $20 million rebate program is likely to have a very modest impact and won’t be available in future years, as this one-time revenue source will have expired,” Msall wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Msall said he’s also concerned that “just as the 2010 property tax rebate program proved to have very limited appeal, this new program may prove to also have limited attraction due to the administrative burden required to secure such a rebate and the potential that the rebates may be additionally taxed as income to the homeowner.”