Ripple effects from the repeal of Cook County’s controversial sweetened beverage tax mean property tax bills will likely be late this year, which could cause big headaches for school districts and potentially cost taxpayers more down the road.
Budget cuts and layoffs triggered by the soda tax roll-back last fall and a record number of property tax appeals mean bills will likely be mailed later than usual, WBEZ has learned. That’s according to the Cook County Board of Review, which handles the appeals process.
And if the bills are late getting out, the revenue is late coming in.
That could have significant consequences for the government bodies that rely on property tax money, such as suburban school districts that are low on reserves.
Schools short on cash could be forced into costly short-term borrowing, which can carry high interest rates, especially for those with poor credit.
The potentially expensive delay is a product of county-wide budget cuts that happened after the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to repeal the soda tax, said Board of Review Secretary James Thompson.
“We were very, very vocal with the board that there are consequences to these cuts,” said Thompson. “And one of them was that our appeal cycle could be delayed because we just didn’t have the manpower to get through the appeals.”
Thompson says his reduced staff was swamped by record breaking property tax appeals. This year taxpayers filed 228,368 complaints, up from more than 208,000 the year before.
Property tax bills have gone out on time for the last six years, Thompson said. The County Clerk has mailed out the bills at the end of June, giving taxpayers until the first week of August to pay up.
Thompson said that uniform schedule allowed a more consistent money flow to the libraries, schools and park districts that rely on property tax revenue.
But last fall, the political backlash against the sweetened beverage tax reached a fever pitch, and attacks started coming from all sides.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle warned that getting rid of the tax would blow a huge hole in the county budget, and she asked county agencies to cut staff.
The Board of Review cautioned commissioners then that layoffs would impact its ability to handle appeals for the 2017 cycle, Thompson said. The board ultimately cut staff by 15 percent and closed its satellite offices.
In an emailed statement, Preckwinkle’s spokesman Frank Shuftan acknowledged the surge in appeals and the budget cuts the could make it “a challenge” to get property tax bills out on time.
“The President and the Budget Office made abundantly clear to all commissioners and separately electeds that without revenue from the sweetened beverage tax, or another source, that all offices, bureaus and departments would need to make expenditure reductions, largely in the form of layoffs or position closures,” Shuftan wrote in an email to WBEZ.
“That such reductions have ultimately been implemented should be no surprise to anyone.”
It’s still unclear exactly how long property tax bills will be delayed. Last year, the board completed its appeals by the end of April. This year, there are outstanding appeals in five townships that need to be resolved before this summer’s tax bills can be mailed out, Thompson said.
Thompson said the consequences could affect Chicagoans next year when their properties are up for reassessment.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.
Update: The percentage of positions cut at the Cook County Board of Review has been updated, based on corrected information provided by the board.