WATCHDOGS: 18 aldermen avoid hefty property tax hikes, 5 pay less

SHARE WATCHDOGS: 18 aldermen avoid hefty property tax hikes, 5 pay less

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (inset) successfully appealed the assessment on his home. As a result, his property-tax bill went down, and he’s paying $377 less than he did last year, while more than 70 percent of taxpayers in his ward saw increases averaging $211. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Three of every four property owners in Chicago have been hit with higher property taxes this year, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows — often thousands of dollars more and in some cases in the Loop and surrounding hot neighborhoods twice what they were last year.

That’s the result of a perfect storm of higher property assessments from Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $318 million tax hike, passed to shore up the city’s shaky finances and boost police and fire pension funds that for years have been shortchanged.

Eighteen of the city’s 50 aldermen — including Ald. Patrick O’Connor, the mayor’s City Council floor leader who rounded up the votes to pass the tax increase last fall — staved off the hefty tax hikes, shifting a total of $19,484 in taxes to other property owners. Those aldermen, including several whose wards have seen real estate prices skyrocket, did that by convincing Berrios or the Cook County Board of Review to lower the estimated value of their homes or apartments.

Five of those aldermen — including four who voted against the tax hike — owe less than they did last year, even as most of their constituents pay more, the Sun-Times found in an analysis of the 882,965 tax bills sent to Chicago landowners. Monday is the deadline to pay.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), who voted for the tax hike, is among those five. His tax bill went down because he convinced Berrios and the Board of Review his home isn’t worth as much as Berrios first thought. Without those appeals, Sposato’s taxes would have risen $1,371 this year. Instead, he’s paying $377 less than he did last year, while more than 70 percent of taxpayers in his ward saw increases averaging $211.

“I didn’t vote for it just so my constituents could pay more taxes,” says Sposato, who, as a Chicago firefighter, belongs to a pension fund that’s among the city’s most poorly funded. “We have an obligation to pay these pensions.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) got hammered. The bill on his two-story home in Wicker Park went up 117 percent, to $19,833, largely because Berrios determined the value of Moreno’s house soared to $1.1 million — more than double the $518,980 value Berrios put on the property three years ago, when it was divided into apartments.

Moreno didn’t challenge the higher assessment, which helped boost his taxes by $10,680, far above the average rise of $1,233 the Sun-Times analysis found for his booming, hipster neighborhood.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno’s home. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno’s home. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

“While I was anticipating an increase in my property taxes this year, I was not expecting that the county assessor’s decision would be to more than double the assessed value of my home and, more importantly, the homes of many others in my ward,” Moreno says. “I think it may be time to revisit the fairness of the appraisal system.”

Berrios’ staff declined to discuss specific property assessments, saying the values are based on sales as well as market conditions since 2012, the last time all Chicago property was reevaluated under his office’s once-every-three-years assessment system.

The assessment determines each property owner’s share of the taxes imposed by local governments. In Chicago, City Hall gets about 20 percent of all property taxes, and the Chicago Public Schools about half, with the rest going to the Chicago Park District, the county and other government bodies.

Between Berrios’ new assessments and Emanuel’s higher taxes, the tax burden in Chicago continued shifting toward downtown, the Sun-Times found. Of $5.3 billion in property taxes Chicago real estate owners must pay, about 32 percent comes from the Loop and the Near North Side — about $372 million more than those areas paid last year.

While taxes overall are up in each of Chicago’s 77 community areas, about 23 percent of tax bills citywide went down — at least 11 percent of them in each community area. Only 17 tax bills stayed exactly the same.

The Loop, Near North Side and Near West Side were hit especially hard, with tax bills up 28 percent overall in those areas. Other hot neighborhoods handed a bigger tax burden included Lincoln Park, West Town, Lake View and Logan Square. Together, those seven community areas now pay 54 percent of all property taxes in Chicago — up about 2 percent over last year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Lou Foglia / Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Lou Foglia / Sun-Times

Emanuel’s tax bill on his home in Ravenswood on the city’s North Side went up 20 percent, to $20,513. That’s partly the result of the tax hike but also because Berrios decided the mayor’s home is worth $1.1 million, up from $946,680. Emanuel didn’t challenge the assessor’s estimate.

Emanuel lives in the 47th Ward, where 79 percent of the tax bills went up — on average by $1,104.

The mayor declined to talk about his tax bill, but aides pointed to his $21 million program offering tax rebates as high as $200 to as many as 155,000 homeowners whose household incomes are $75,000 or less.

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Berrios, who also chairs the Cook County Democratic Party, owns a two-flat in the Northwest Side’s 31st Ward — where nearly 72 percent of property tax bills rose an average of $346. Berrios’ own tax bill went up 11.6 percent, to $5,665, after his staff determined the building is worth $335,200, up $34,890 from the last assessment. The assessor’s office says the assessment is higher than most similar buildings on the block.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) — the city’s most powerful aldermen, who also heads a law firm that’s won millions of dollars in property tax cuts for clients including Donald Trump by getting their assessments cut — tried but failed to save himself some money, unsuccessfully contesting the value Berrios put on his three-story home in West Elsdon on the Southwest Side.

Berrios estimated Burke’s huge house is worth $781,000, up from $670,420. With the higher assessment and the tax hike he supported, Burke’s taxes rose 16 percent, to $13,489. Tax bills went up for about 75 percent of his constituents, with an average increase of $340.

Eighteen other aldermen — including 11 who voted against Emanuel’s tax increase — successfully appealed assessments on their homes or other property, winning reductions that kept their taxes from rising a collective $25,750, the Sun-Times found. The savings ranged from $448 on the Lake View condo owned by Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) to $3,952 on the Kenwood home of Ald. Sophia King (4th). Tunney voted for the mayor’s tax hike. King wasn’t appointed by Emanuel to fill a City Council vacancy until after the tax hike passed.

O’Connor challenged the reassessment on his home in Budlong Woods on the North Side, which Berrios originally valued at $645,680 — which would have been an increase of 14.3 percent. Berrios agreed to lower that, and the alderman and his attorney won a larger cut from the Board of Review, which valued the home at $596,360, saving O’Connor about $904 in taxes.

Without the assessment cuts, O’Connor’s tax bill would have been $11,356 — about $1,359 more than last year. Instead, it ended up being $10,447 — up about $450 over last year, while 69 percent of the taxpayers in his ward were hit with tax increases averaging $719.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) is paying 31 percent less than he did last year after convincing Berrios to lower the estimated value of the East Garfield Park townhouse the alderman shares with his wife, Melissa Conyears, who’s running for the Illinois House of Representatives this fall. Berrios estimated the townhouse was worth $420,000 two years ago but lowered the value to $240,870 last year. Conyears appealed, pointing out the purchase price three years ago was $185,000.

Ald. Jason Ervin’s home. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Ald. Jason Ervin’s home. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

“That was just wrong,” Ervin, who saw the largest tax decrease of any alderman, says of the original assessment.

The lowered assessment saved Ervin $1,024, leaving him with a tax bill of $2,909 — about $1,300 less than last year. Ervin says he and his wife are due refunds on past taxes — about $8,665, according to county officials. Ervin, who opposed Emanuel’s tax increase, now has the lowest tax bill of any townhome in his building.

These are the tax savings for the other aldermen whose assessments were reduced:

• Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), $475 on a condo he sold last month.

• Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), $2,079.

• Ald. Milly Santiago (31st), $864.

• Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), $835.

• Ald. Deborah Mell (33rd), $650.

• Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), $851.

• Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), $458.

• Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), $1,246.

• Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), $1,165.

• Ald. John Arena (45th), $579.

• Ald. James Cappleman (46th), $812.

• Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), $1,152.

• Ald. Deborah Silverstein (50th), $619.

Among the 18 aldermen whose assessments were reduced, only Arena, Cappleman, O’Connor, Smith, Sposato and Tunney voted for Emanuel’s tax hike.

Like Moreno, most aldermen didn’t contest their assessments, and all of those council members except for Ald. David Moore (17th) saw their tax bills go up between 2 percent and 117 percent. Moore’s assessment rose slightly, but his bill fell by $3.67.

The Sun-Times analysis also found:

• Chicago’s average property tax bills range from $35,319 in the Loop to $1,286 in West Englewood.

• A dozen wards now pay at least $100 million in property taxes annually — two more than last year.

• 89 percent of the tax bills rose in Mount Greenwood — higher than any other community area — while just under half the tax bills went up in Kenwood.

The tax bill for Casey Moran’s, a popular bar across from Wrigley Field, plummeted — from $66,345 last year to $36,436 this year after owner Kevin Killerman and his attorney Steve Pearlman protested Berrios’ attempt to raise the assessment by 10 percent. Pearlman convinced Berrios and the Board of Review to slash the proposed assessment by 49.3 percent, saving Killerman more than $35,000 in taxes on a building that’s assessed as a residential property, with two apartments and a commercial space.

Killerman, who couldn’t be reached for comment, owns several popular bars on the North Side and previously controlled beer sales at Lollapalooza. He has obtained numerous liquor licenses from City Hall after hiring attorney Mark Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Many River North homeowners were hit with big tax increases, among them former NBA star Antoine Walker, whose tax bill soared $66,493, to $119,032.

Tax increases were even larger on the Gold Coast, including those for a co-op building near Oak Street Beach at 209 E. Lake Shore Dr., where the tax bill topped $3 million, an increase of $939,374.

Bruce Gelman, a tax attorney, saw the bill on his Near North Side home hit $168,742, nearly $105,000 more than last year.

Hopkins, who represents the Gold Coast, expected his ward would be hit hard. He leases an apartment near the Water Tower, where he moved when the City Council redrew ward boundaries, putting Hopkins’ Michigan Avenue condo in Reilly’s 42nd Ward. Hopkins sold the condo after the condo association won a cut in the assessments, saving $475 in taxes this year.

“Sooner or later, the perception is going to be that the property taxes are too high, and people may leave,” Hopkins says. “But where are you going to go? Taxes are even higher in the suburbs.”

Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little

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