Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to better reflect the comments of Leslie McMillan.
The age-old question of who is to blame for your property tax bill was nearly answered during a virtual First Ward meeting Thursday night.
First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly sought to answer questions about the definition and purpose of the Cook County Assessor’s recently published Evanston Township Property Values Reassessment for 2022. Attendees used the meeting to express concern about all things real estate related.
Kelly was joined online by Fritz Kaegi, the Cook County Assessor; Evanston Tax Assessment Reviewer Mitzi Gibbs; and the Cook County Assessor’s Office’s Director of Communications Angelina Romera. Kaegi shared a 15-minute presentation that explained what an assessment is and how it relates to taxes.
The greatest concern among First Ward residents, according to Kelly, is the 30% increase in the median value of residential properties, including apartments and condos, since 2019 (reassessments occur on a three-year cycle). Since 2017, the median sales price of a single-family home in Evanston increased from $503,000 to $620,000. However, the Cook County Assessor’s Office determined the median value of these same homes to be $540,000.
“The key thing to know is that if your home is increasing by 30%, that doesn’t mean your property taxes are going up by 30%,” said Kaegi. His presentation also stated that this increase in value will not be reflected in the upcoming property tax bill, to be released later this month, but next year’s bill instead.
“If everyone’s value is going up by 30%, your share of the burden may not change at all.”
Throughout the evening, Kaegi shared reasons besides the reassessment that affect property tax rates and bills, including municipality levies and supply and demand in the real estate market.
Information for appeals
Kaegi took time to explain that homeowners can still appeal their property’s value if they believe it was determined with lack of uniformity, overvaluation or has an incorrect property description.
Gibbs shared that her role is to assist Evanstonians in the tax filing and appeals process. Although the appeals process through the assessor’s office closed in September, homeowners can still file appeals through the Cook County Board of Review.
The prospect for tax exemptions was also explained in detail Thursday. Kaegi encouraged attendees to visit Evanston’s page of the Assessor’s Office website to check if they qualify for exemptions based on veteran or disability status, or if they’ve made home improvements. Certificate of Error credit is also possible for those seeking exemptions from the last three years.
Rock concerts at Northwestern?
Several attendees of Thursday night’s meeting expressed concern over the tax exemption status of Northwestern University’s Evanston properties. Many cited Ryan Field stadium’s $800 million renovation plan. The privately funded stadium renovation received an initial investment of $480 million from the Ryan family.
Northwestern receives public and private funding with net assets of $16.1 billion. Currently, Northwestern’s tax-exempt properties make up 36.5% of all of Evanston’s tax-exempt properties as of a 2017 study conducted by the City Manager.
Evanston resident Kathy Hayes asked if the city was looking to other trends across the country on taxing schools and other tax-exempt entities that have large endowments.
“It’s such a large landowner all over Evanston, and seems to be building every day,” Hayes said. “There’s always been a tug of war regarding pay your fair share, or ‘donate some services.’”
Another attendee, Leslie McMillan, pointed to profit-making events and asked if the stadium be put onto the property tax role if it is used for “for profit” purposes.
Kaegi explained that the tax code allows institutions like Northwestern to claim profits as charitable, and therefore, non-taxable. He said he would be willing to re-evaluate certain properties within Northwestern’s holdings to determine if the university is renting them out for events that are not directly charitable to Northwestern students and the Evanston community.
“Now, unfortunately, we cannot change how we assess people based on whether they have a big endowment or a small one,” Kaegi said.
The lasting impact of COVID-19
To the attendees asking about relief from the prolonged impact of the pandemic on income, rent and taxes, Kaegi discussed the 2021 General Assembly bill that incentivizes the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing.
Buildings with seven units of housing or more that have a percentage of units available to people based on income can make property owners qualified for the Affordable Housing Special Assessment Program. This creates an exemption or deduction for property taxes for such buildings.
Business owners expressed discontent about their property tax rates that are not factored with the seasonal nature of business near a school campus. Evanston property owners report struggling to arrange long-term leases when they say they are forced to double or triple rents due to rising property taxes.
“We make sure we do our best not to mix fish with fowl,” Kaegi replied. “We don’t want to assess a square foot of your retail space, in the same way that we would assess the Old Orchard mall.”
Kaegi said that such retail properties deserve to be treated differently, and that the Assessor’s Office sends a Real Property Income and Expense form during the first quarter of every assessment to property owners. This form allows them to share how much rent they collect each year, what costs are, if there are vacancies, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted this status.
“Certainly, if you’re showing us that you can’t rent it for much, that’s going to carry a lot of weight,” Kaegi said. Kelly also assured the meeting’s attendees that she personally will seek out any way to maintain rents and keep small businesses alive.
The final answer of the evening’s issues came from Kaegi, who believes that accurate property value assessment will ensure people are paying their “fair share[s]”.
You can reach the Cook County Assessor’s Office by phone at 312-443-7550 or through its website.