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Budget wisely: Property tax bills likely due Aug. 1, earliest since ’78

Pete Coccaro left co-worker Chris Ford have discussiduring work Beverly Hills Garage 2043 W. 95th St. Thursday May 31 2012

Pete Coccaro, left, and co-worker Chris Ford have a discussion during work at Beverly Hills Garage, 2043 W. 95th St., Thursday, May 31, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:44AM

Pete Coccaro isn’t planning any big trips or splashy purchases this summer.

With Cook County’s second-installment property tax bills expected to be in the mail by month’s end, commercial and residential property owners could have the earliest due date in more than 30 years to pay up: Aug. 1.

“I won’t go out of my way to do anything extra,” said Coccaro, who’ll have to dig deep in to his pockets to pay the roughly $8,000 he will owe in total this summer to pay his real estate taxes on his Palos Park home and on his family’s Beverly Hills Garage automotive repair shop on the South Side.

“I have a little bit of reserves always set aside. Would I do anything on a whim or plan a trip? No. I’ll just be a little more careful right now.”

While state law says real estate tax bills should be sent to property owners by July 1, Cook County hasn’t met that deadline since 1978.

Why the delay? It depends on who you ask.

The reasons include the bills getting mired in bureaucracy, political maneuvering and squabbling — or all of the above.

While due dates have varied throughout the decades, they slipped into November and December during the last decade. The latest second-installment tax bills have been due was Dec. 13th, 2010, according to tax records. That was an election year, and critics charged powerful Democrats delayed getting the bills out until after Nov. 2 to avoid voter backlash as property values plummeted but taxes didn’t.

County Assessor Joe Berrios — who as head of the county Democratic Party was blamed, in part, for that delay — has dismissed the claim but doesn’t deny that politics has historically played a role in the foot-dragging. But not his, he says.

Berrios, who served on the county’s property tax appeals board before winning his current seat, blames his predecessor and political foe Jim Houlihan for “holding the process hostage” as a “political move.”

“It’s a new administration,” Berrios said, a nod to friend and powerful political ally Toni Preckwinkle, the county board president who has been loudly declaring the deadline will be made this year.

Berrios says his office also moved up deadlines for reassessments — that is setting the value of real estate for taxing purposes — and the tax appeals Board of Review did the same, setting the stage for getting the bills out on time. 

Houlihan declined to comment.

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose office is charged with mailing out the bills for 1.7 million parcels of property, has said she’s never fielded a call from a property owner complaining about the delayed billing.

But she and other elected leaders say the consequences are serious. Local taxing districts — libraries, schools and municipalities — waiting on the money often are forced to go to seek out loans to tide them over. 

“If it’s so unpredictable or so late, some of these districts had no choice but to borrow money,” said Ali ElSaffar, president of the Cook County Township Assessors’ Association. 

That, too, hurts taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for interest on those loans. 

But property owners already navigating a tough economy may find themselves in a temporary bind with this year’s expected earlier billing date. That’s particularly true when you consider that Cook County property owners have had to pay three real estate tax bills in the last nine months: Nov. 1, March 1 and now — if all goes as planned — Aug. 1.

The average annual property tax bill for commercial and industrial parcels is $53,645, while the average tab for residential parcels — which include single family homes and condos — is $4,475.

“Many people live paycheck to paycheck and these are the ones that will affect the most,” said financial planner William Kovacic, of Kovacic Financial Associates in Palos Heights.

That may mean fewer nights on the town — or out of town.

“It may include a lighter vacation, a less expensive vacation and [cutting] entertainment costs — what we call discretionary expenses,” Kovacic said, adding “maybe not so many trips to the ballpark — of course we’re already seeing that in this economy.”

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