Here’s Why Cook County’s Property Tax Freeze Might Thaw

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visits Morning Shift on April 24, 2019. Jason Marck / WBEZ
preckwinkle ms
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visits Morning Shift on April 24, 2019. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Here’s Why Cook County’s Property Tax Freeze Might Thaw

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Cook County government could end a 25-year-old property tax freeze to generate more money for two of its core missions: public safety and health care.

It’s not something that would be immediate. It wouldn’t happen even in 2020, said Ammar Rizki, the county’s chief financial officer.

But a small property tax increase by capturing the rise in inflation could be among recommendations from an independent commission that helps the county better forecast revenue coming in, said Rizki, who leads the commission.

In an email, a spokesman for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle confirmed she expects the commission “to review this matter in the near future.” Preckwinkle declined an interview request to provide more details.

The Cook County Board would have to agree to such an increase, and it’s not clear what kind of appetite commissioners have for further burdening property owners — who are also their voters.

“People are conscious that the largest asset that any of our citizens own are their houses,” said longtime Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston. “So taxing their houses becomes something that can be difficult to do.”

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, D-Chicago, called tax hikes “kryptonite” at the county health system’s meeting last week when the discussion turned toward how to generate more money. The most reviled Cook County tax hike in recent years was on sugary beverages. Commissioners repealed it after taxpayers revolted.

Chicagoans in particular have been seeing their property taxes increase in recent years, after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel ushered through a historic hike in order to shore up the city’s foundering pension systems. New Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet detailed how she’ll address a projected $838 million budget shortfall for next year, but she has not ruled out a property tax hike.

In 1994, Cook County government capped the portion of property taxes it collects from property owners at $720 million a year. But for the last 25 years, the county board could have allowed that number to grow with inflation – known as natural growth – but they haven’t been. That’s what the independent revenue forecast commission could recommend, Rizki said.

In county budget briefings, Rizki has projected years of deficits ahead, peaking at more than $100 million in 2024.

“One thing’s for sure: On the expense side, our expenditures are growing at least by inflation,” Rizki said. “So we want to be able to match the growth on the revenue side, too. Otherwise we’ll constantly find ourselves in this whole where we have to raise some other tax or cut critical services that are needed.”

Indeed, over the years commissioners have chosen to shore up revenue in other ways and cut expenses, including layoffs, instead of hiking property taxes.

But the impact of not tacking on the growth of inflation to property taxes has added up, totaling about $460 million since the cap began 25 years ago, Rizki said.

For perspective, if the county decided to capture the rise in inflation for next year, it would generate an additional $14 million to $15 million.

That doesn’t sound like much when the county’s overall annual budget is about $6 billion. But Ralph Martire, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said to consider the long game.

“Costs grow,” Martire said. “It’s irrational for voters and taxpayers to think that government doesn’t need … added revenue that at least keeps up with inflation from year to year to simply meet the cost of providing the same level of services.”

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.