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Feel like your property taxes are climbing higher than your other bills? New 20-year study shows you’re right.

If it seems like your property tax tab is climbing far faster than your other bills, that’s because it is.

In the past 20 years, the total annual amount of property taxes billed by local governments in Cook County increased at nearly three times the rate of inflation, according to a new study out of the county treasurer’s office. The total tax tab went up by 99%, while the regional cost of living went up by just 36%, the study found.

The contrast was even greater in the city of Chicago, where overall property taxes rose by 115%, compared with 87% in the county’s 126 suburbs overall, according to Treasurer Maria Pappas. She provided an advance look at what she calls “The Pappas Study” to the Tribune before its formal release.

Pappas, who has held her post since 1998, said she was spurred to conduct the study by taxpayers who have flooded her office with stories of not being able to afford their tax bills. More than two decades of gathering data and a series of technological upgrades over that time made it possible, she added.

“I’m hoping that as people continue to look at this data … that at some point, the plug is going to be put on property taxes, especially in this pandemic," she said. “Everyone is cutting back, but the property tax bill is going up. It’s not working.”

The study comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot — facing mounting city costs amid an economic downturn fueled by pandemic restrictions — has proposed another significant property tax increase for next year and raising property taxes every year after that by the rate of inflation.

Just as Lightfoot and other local government leaders stare down some of the biggest budget shortfalls in decades, Pappas is highlighting the swelling burden of the property tax, which school and municipal government leaders often view as their most reliable source of revenue despite its reputation as the third rail of Illinois politics for its unpopularity among voters.

A man walks past a house in the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. The house is highlighted in Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' report on Cook County property tax increases over the past 20 years. The tax on the house was $3,352 in 2000. Today, it is $15,245.

A man walks past a house in the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. The house is highlighted in Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' report on Cook County property tax increases over the past 20 years. The tax on the house was $3,352 in 2000. Today, it is $15,245. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

The treasurer plans to post the study on her office’s website, complete with an online calculator that will allow individual home and business owners to look up how the tax burden has grown on their specific properties over the years. It also will include interactive maps, so people can look up overall tax increases in their ward, suburb or unincorporated area.

A quick caveat: Increases on specific properties from 2000-19 vary widely, depending on where they are located, the rate of home price growth, and decisions made by government leaders and voters in tax-increase referendums.

The study also documents regional trends, showing the pattern of increases in each of the city’s wards, and individual suburbs and school districts. Those tables show some wards where taxes more than doubled and others where the tax increases were not nearly as steep.

Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, a government budget watchdog group, commended Pappas for the study. “This is the first time this level of detail has been made available,” Msall said.

“It really does show the reliance on property taxes to fund schools and other local governments, and how that is building over time and putting Chicago and Cook County in a place where it is very difficult to withstand the level of increase they continue to see over time without any end in sight," he added.

Pappas dedicated the study to former Tribune editorial page editor John McCormick and former editor R. Bruce Dold, noting their efforts to highlight government spending and taxation issues.

The study’s primary point is to show how property tax increases have eclipsed the rate of inflation, but it also shows how the overall growth in property taxes has outstripped earning power. During the 20 years that taxes increased by nearly 100%, average wages in the county increased by 57%, the study found.

The study also revealed uneven increases between residential and business properties, with homeowners seeing far bigger increases.

Residential tax bills in the city swelled by 164%, while those on business properties grew by a comparatively modest 81%. As a result, slightly more than half of the city’s nearly $7 billion city property tax burden is now borne by homeowners. By contrast, Chicago businesses paid 59% of the overall tab 20 years ago.

In suburban Cook, residential bills rose by 116%, compared with 57% for commercial properties. Most of the overall $8.6 billion suburban property tax tab is picked up by homeowners, with residential taxpayers now paying about 62% of that tab. That figure is up from 53% two decades earlier.

The undervaluing of larger commercial properties at the expense of other taxpayers also was highlighted in “The Tax Divide,” a collaborative investigative series published by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois.

Pappas' study does not explore how assessments are set, but they are a key component in calculating tax bills. In general, the higher the assessed fair market value of the property, the higher the tax bill.

That equation plays heavily into tax bills in some city wards where gentrification has sent property values soaring. For example, in the 3rd Ward that includes the South Loop, the amount billed to residents grew by nearly 863% over 20 years, while the commercial tab more than doubled — for a combined increase of 431%.

Historically, property taxes in Illinois are among the nation’s highest because they remain the primary source of school funding. Property taxes also are controversial because they are billed twice a year and cost thousands of dollars each time, reminding voters of the substantial sums they are paying to government.

Yet property taxes are considered one of the most reliable money generators because they’re collected in fixed amounts that tend not to diminish much during economic downturns and the state gives local governments the power to set them. Most of your property tax money funds schools, but villages, the county, park districts, suburban townships and many other local government agencies also rely on the cash.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel raised property taxes to pay for city worker pension funds, including a 2015 plan that boosted them by $543 over four years.

Largely as a result of that tax hike, city property taxes increased the last five years from under $1 billion to nearly $1.7 billion, records show. Lightfoot has proposed increasing property taxes by nearly $94 million in 2021 and by the rate of inflation in future years.

Lightfoot, who’s facing some pushback from aldermen, has said the inflation-tied increases would provide “stability” and “predictability” for taxpayers. As for the proposed 2021 increase, the mayor blamed the pandemic hurting city finances. She noted it amounts to a $56 hike on a home valued at $250,000.

Another driver of city property tax bills is the often-cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools. Under Emanuel and Lightfoot, the district has increased its property taxes by the maximum allowed each year. CPS property taxes have jumped from around $2 billion in 2007 — as far back as county levy records go — to nearly $3.2 billion.

Illinois has a tax cap law that limits most government agencies to property tax increases that don’t exceed the rate of inflation, plus capturing the value of newly constructed buildings. In CPS’ case, the state also authorized a new property tax dedicated to teachers’ pension system payments.

While complaints about city property tax increases get a lot of attention, the pain is being felt in the suburbs too — although voters have in some cases agreed to the bigger increases.

In suburban Cook, school districts have asked voters to raise taxes higher than the state limits or borrow money to build and renovate buildings. During the study’s 20 years, suburban voters approved referendums to exceed the tax cap 63 times and to issue bonds 176 times. The bond approvals were for $3.92 billion in borrowing. Pappas noted that such ballot questions appear in off-year elections, when sometimes fewer than a quarter of voters go to the polls.

In south suburban Markham, total taxes billed grew by 158%, followed by southwest suburban Lemont, where they grew 157%, and northwest suburban Bartlett, where the grew by 147%. In Bartlett, voters approved two school referendums that allowed the issuance of $151.4 million in bonds.

Like the city, suburbs also in many cases are grappling with reduced federal and state funding, pandemic-driven revenue losses, underfunded pension systems and rising costs — the same woes that led Lightfoot to her tax increase proposal. The debates this year could be supercharged, considering that restrictions resulting from the pandemic have hit homeowners who may have lost their jobs and are struggling to figure out how they will pay their bills, even without a tax hike.

Pappas does not offer recommendations in her report for addressing the issue of rapidly rising property taxes, but does point to a series of other studies with potential solutions that have been released in the last decade.

Many critics say the problem lies with the state and its reliance on property taxes to fund schools, even as other states have moved to fund schools primarily with state government revenue.

Pappas said local government leaders need to take responsibility for their own spending, while voters need to make their voices heard on the issue.

“You have to show up at the public hearings that are held once a year on budgets, you need to talk to your elected, but you can’t just sit there and say, ‘I got a bill, and now I’m gonna complain about it.’”

The Tribune’s John Byrne contributed to this report.

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