About those property tax bills ...

Opinion: Columns

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Ali Elsaffar

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Oak Park taxpayers, beleaguered by three years of significant tax increases, saw a modicum of relief when second-installment property tax bills were mailed earlier this month. The pace of tax increases, for one year at least, has slowed. 

Between 2015 and 2017, most Oak Park property owners experienced tax increases of 20% as a result of a voter-approved referendum and levy increases by other local taxing districts. In 2018 a reassessment hit tax bills, leading to a double-digit tax increase for one out of every four Oak Park homeowners. These reassessment-related tax increases, coming on top of the 20% increases from the two prior years, created financial hardship for many in Oak Park. 

This year's slower rate of tax increases means that most property owners will see their bills rise by about 2.1%, which corresponds to a $210 increase on a $10,000 tax bill. Property taxes will likely fall for property owners who filed successful tax appeals in 2018. 

The primary reason for the modest property tax increases is a significant reduction in the tax levy of the high school. This tax reduction contributed to an unusually small increase in the overall levies of local governments serving Oak Park and helped keep the tax increases at levels well below the amounts seen in recent years. 

Why did the high school's tax levy fall by $4.5 million? 

In 2017, the state legislature approved a new program that provides state aid to school districts with very high property tax rates. This year, 28 Illinois school districts, including Oak Park and River Forest High School, qualified for financial aid under the new program. The program provided the high school an extra $3.8 million in state aid this year, but in exchange, the school had to reduce its property tax levy. This year's levy is $4.5 million less than the levy from last year.

Ordinarily, the high school and most other taxing districts have the right to increase their tax levies by an amount equaling the annual rate of inflation. If the school had not received the extra money from the state, it would have sought an inflation-level tax increase this year, and the result would have been a 4.4% tax increase for most property owners in Oak Park. Thanks to the extra state money, however, the typical tax increase in Oak Park is just 2.1%. 

Local taxpayers should enjoy the tax relief provided by the new state program but understand that it may not last. The high school should remain eligible for this increased aid from the state for a number of years, but the additional money is not guaranteed, as the state could fail to fund the program or alter the eligibility rules. In addition, program rules require the school district to reduce its tax levies in the initial year of the program, but apparently do not require tax reductions in subsequent years. Thus the duration of this year's tax relief depends on decisions of the state legislature and the high school board. 

Given the reduction in the high school's levy, why was there an overall increase in local tax levies? 

The reduction in the high school's levy was offset by tax increases from local governments that did not receive new state aid targeted at reducing property taxes. These increases, however, were generally moderate. For example, Oak Park Township, the Park District of Oak Park, and village government each posted tax increases of about 3%. 

The biggest local tax increase this year came from school District 97. The primary reason for its 4.1% increase relates to the continuing impact of an error made two years ago, when the school district received $2.6 million more from a referendum than it expected. To make up for overtaxing two years ago, the school reduced its tax levies last year. With a 4.1% tax increase this year, D97's overall levy is now close to the level it would have reached if the district had collected the correct amount of money in 2017, and then received inflation-level tax increases in the next two years.

Can I do anything to reduce my current tax bill? 

If you are eligible for a homeowner, senior-citizen or other exemption but did not receive one, the Township Assessor's Office can assist you in obtaining a revised bill for a smaller amount. If you have received all exemptions for which you are eligible, you likely will not be able to do anything about your current bill.

Can I do anything to reduce next year's tax bill? 

Between July 1 and July 30, the Cook County Board of Review will be accepting appeals from Oak Park residents for next year's taxes. Residents may call the Oak Park Township Assessor's Office during the appeal period to schedule an appointment for help in preparing an appeal. Alternatively, residents can get help at the end of the appeal period by attending a tax appeal seminar sponsored by the Board of Review. 

The seminar will take place on July 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Avenue in Oak Park. 

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