Property Tax Classification in Cook County, Illinois

Scott Koeneman, Janeiro 1, 2000

Conventional wisdom and basic economic principles would suggest that an area subject to higher commercial and industrial property taxes than its nearby neighbors will suffer reduced economic development in comparison to those neighbors. On the other hand, any effort to reduce such unequal or “classified” property tax rates will produce a revenue shortfall. Raising taxes on homeowners to equalize rates and recover this lost revenue will encounter enormous and obvious political resistance.

This is the situation currently facing Cook County and the city of Chicago, and was the subject of a conference led by Therese McGuire of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Held last September and cosponsored by the Lincoln Institute, the IGPA, and the Civic Federation of Chicago, the program brought together more than a hundred business and civic leaders, academics and practitioners to consider alternative methods of addressing the problems presented by the Cook County classification system.

In Illinois, the use of a property tax classification system by Cook County has been blamed for the economic decline of Chicago and the inner suburbs. The classification system is also seen as a barrier to reforming school funding and the state’s tax system. Are these charges valid? Does the classification system put Cook County at an economic disadvantage compared to its rapidly growing adjacent “collar counties”? If classification has so many shortcomings, why was it instituted in the first place? If we are only now recognizing those shortcomings, what steps can be taken that are both economically and politically feasible to overcome the problems?

Overview of Tax Classification

Illinois has long operated under the twin principles of uniformity and universality for both real and personal property, and both principles were incorporated into the Illinois Constitution of 1870. However, de facto or administrative classification of real property developed in Cook County as a response to the difficulty in taxing personal property in the same manner as real property. By the 1920s, the Cook County assessor publicly acknowledged assessing residential property at 25 percent of real value and business property at 60 percent.

A 1966 Illinois Department of Revenue report noted that Cook County was using 15 different classification groups. Despite the fact that classification was clearly in violation of the 1870 Constitution, the Illinois Supreme Court had refused to confront the issue. By the late 1960s, however, the court was prepared to overturn the existing system, and the 1970 constitutional convention faced the potential threat of court intervention.

The convention was the product of numerous reform efforts in Illinois during the previous decade. The state had failed to find a compromise redistricting plan after the 1960 census, causing the entire Illinois House to be elected as at-large members in 1964. That election brought many reformers to office, and a House-created commission charged with recommending constitutional reforms subsequently called for the 1970 convention.

Several delegates on the convention’s revenue committee were passionately in favor of uniformity, and they had considerable support from experts who opposed classification as a matter of economic policy. On the other hand, the Chicago delegation was adamant in demanding that the new constitution legalize classification. It was generally believed that without legalization, the new constitution would not have the support of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his delegation, in which case it would fail to pass.

As a result, the 1970 Illinois Constitution allowed counties with a population greater than 200,000 to classify property for taxation. The extension of classification to these large counties was also allowed for the collar counties because many taxing districts crossed those county boundaries. Cook County’s system was thus guaranteed, but the Constitution gave the General Assembly the power to apply limitations because of concerns there would be a crazy quilt of classifications should the collar counties adopt that system. Nevertheless, no collar county has done so.

Today, Cook County’s classification system is considered by many to be an impediment to Illinois’ attempts to deal with a variety of social and economic issues. Politically, classification is believed to be partly to blame for the failure to reform education funding in Illinois. In 1997, then Governor James Edgar led an unsuccessful attempt to convince the General Assembly to gradually shift the burden of education funding from property taxes to income taxes. One of the strongest arguments against the effort was that it would be a windfall for businesses and corporations, whose property taxes would be shifted to individual taxpayers. That shift would have even been greater in Cook County, which has more than 47 percent of the state’s entire assessed value and where businesses pay property taxes at a rate double that of homeowners.

Impacts on Economic Development

In terms of economic development, some observers believe that classification puts Cook County at a disadvantage in the eyes of business people who might consider locating in Illinois or expanding their operations in the state. While there are obviously other factors involved, the concern is that classification would cause these companies to look more favorably at locations in the collar counties or other states.

Recent research has shown that high property taxes do have a negative effect on the market value of property and do deter businesses from locating in the affected areas. Studies of property tax differences in the Boston, Phoenix and Chicago areas have shown that, because higher property taxes mean higher rents and lower market values, real estate development shifts from the high-tax area to the low-tax area over time. Other studies have shown that manufacturers seeking to relocate are very sensitive to local property tax rates. New construction and retail trade are also affected negatively, although the service sector is not as influenced by high property taxes.

Is this the case in Cook County? A recent study by Richard Dye, Therese McGuire and David Merriman, all affiliated with the IGPA, found that the effective tax rate of Cook County (5.52 percent for commercial and 5.78 percent for industrial property) is higher than in the collar counties, which have an average rate of 2.54 percent on all property. Furthermore, they found that four measures of economic activity-growth in the value of commercial property, the value of industrial property, the number of establishments and the employment rate-were measurably lower in Cook County than in the collar counties. But is that the end of the story?

No, according to the study’s authors. A multifaceted national trend is dispersing population, employment and business activity away from metropolitan centers to outlying counties. To determine if it is this national trend or specific property tax differences that is causing slower economic growth in Cook County, the study examined the characteristics of 260 municipalities in the Chicago metropolitan area. The researchers used two samples of municipalities-one metro-wide and the other limited to those near the Cook County border, where the effects of higher tax rates should be most potent.

The researchers presented their results, at the conference finding, “weak evidence at best that taxes matter.” Once other influences on business activity were factored out, the researchers determined that, for the entire six-county region, employment was the only economic activity that seemed to be adversely affected by property taxes, although in the border region the market value of industrial property was also affected. “The bottom line is that the evidence is mixed and inconclusive,” said McGuire. “There is no smoking gun.”

Another participant in the conference challenged this interpretation of the results. Michael Wasylenko of Syracuse University, who had been asked to review the study in advance and discuss it at the conference, said he was convinced that the researchers did find significant effects because the employment measure is a better measure of economic activity than the others. “I think the weight of the evidence suggests that these results are consistent with previous findings that property tax differentials will have a substantial effect on employment growth within a metropolitan area.”

If the employment factor, then, is the one to be given the most weight and Cook County’s property tax classification system is economically disadvantageous, in addition to being a political roadblock to reform, what is to be done? “It comes down to whether the economic gains that might be realized if you went to a non-classified tax are worth the political battles. Are the economic development advantages enough to want to do this,” said Wasylenko.

The economic and political stakes in this decision are high, since Cook County currently levies more than 50 percent of all property taxes in the state. The county cannot rapidly shift a large part of the tax burden among classes of property, but neither can it ignore concerns that the tax burden on businesses located there place it at an economic disadvantage with regard to its nearby neighbors. Any solution must be approached as a component of the overall tax system, be grounded in verifiable data, and have significant support from the public, the media and business interests. The September conference sought to contribute to that process of informed public debate on a crucial fiscal topic.

In early December, the Cook County assessor proposed reducing the assessment ratio (the ratio of assessed value to market value) for certain types of business property: from 36 to 33 percent for industrial properties such as factories and distribution facilities; from 33 to 26 percent for large investor-owned residential property; and from 33 to 16 percent for multiuse storefront businesses with apartments on upper floors. The assessor’s hope is that more favorable treatment of business will lead to even more rapid growth of the tax base over time. While these recommendations came out of several different tax studies, any changes in assessment rates must by approved by the Cook County Board before they can be implemented.

Scott Koeneman is communications manager at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) of the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois.


Dye, R., T. McGuire and D. Merriam. 1999. “The Impact of Property Taxes and the Property Tax Classification on Business Activity in the Chicago Metropolitan Area.” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Working Paper.

Giertz, J.F., and T. McGuire, “Cook County, Ill., Assessor Proposese Changes in Assessment Levels,” State Tax Today. Dec. 7, 1999.

Man, J. 1995. “The Incidence of Differential Commercial Property Taxes: Empirical Evidence,” National Tax Journal, 48: 479-496.

McDonald, J. 1993. “Incidence of the Property Tax on Commercial Real Estate: The Case of Downtown Chicago,” National Tax Journal, 46: 109-120.

Wheaton, W. 1984. “The Incidence of Inter-jurisdictional Differences in Commercial Property Taxes,” National Tax Journal, 37: 515-527.

Source: Illinois Department of Revenue