Taxpayer Revolt Gains in Chicago

During the Great Depression, there were organized property tax strikes in parts of the United States, notably in Chicago. Almost half a century later, the dragon reawakened. Here’s how the New York Times covered it :

Taxpayer Revolt Gains in Chicago

“Taxes are immoral,” intoned the speaker, and 350 normally sedate, mostly elderly homeowners shouted their approval.

Their shouts reflected a wave of anger that has swept through Cook County’s northern quadrant, including several Chicago neighborhoods and suburban communities, since the county recently imposed large property tax increases in the area after reassessments.

The mood also resembled discontent of varying degrees generated in many sections of the country by inflated property values, taxes and local government costs.

Protesters here have vowed to bring down taxes or bring down those who imposed them, and many have joined a tax strike in an effort to bring that about. There are some indications that theirs may be the first such protest in the country to bring substantial results.

The crowd was gathered last night at the First United Methodist Church in Evanston, a North Shore suburb, for the latest of several protest meetings. At each meeting, anger over tax increases ranging in many cases from 40 to 300 percent has been fanned by the same speaker, James L. Tobin, a 31-year-old economist who works as a bank auditor.

“You can never call a tax fair when you are forced to pay against your will,” Mr. Tobin told an Evanston audience. “It’s immoral to force me to pay for educational facilities when I don’t have any children to send to school. It’s immoral to force the elderly and retired to pay for schools that are no use to them.”

The crowd cheered again when Mr. Tobin, a graduate economist with a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, urged them to continue their tax strike, despite threats that it could result in their losing their homes. Mr. Tobin is president of the Illinios chapter of the National Taxpayers Union, a 40,000-member group organized to curb tax burdens.

Unlike the New York area, where tax increases have generally been moderate and where some suburbs, such as Nassau County and Westchester, have even had slight reductions in their property taxes, a number of other areas in the country have seen tax increases and protests similar to the one here. Such areas include Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, and Maryland’s Prince Georges County, a Washington suburb. However, all of the tax protests have proved short-lived and ineffective.

“Don’t Know How to Fight”

“Generally, they don’t hold very long,” said William Bonner, executive director of the National Taxpayers Union, in a telephone interview from Washington. “The people don’t know how to fight the officials.”

Mr. Bonner said his organization did not recommend tax revolts, such as the one organized here .

There is disagreement here over the effectiveness of Mr. Tobin’s call for withholding taxes, but the movement is clearly getting the attention of public officials.

Mr. Tobin, who owns a four-apartment house here, has said that many homeowners, like him, are refusing to pay. But the office of Edward Rosewell, county treasurer, said that while tax collections lagged behind schedule before the deadline, millions of payments poured in the final day.

There is no indication of final delinquency figures. Delinquent taxpayers are subject to a 1 percent penalty. After , a speculator could pay their taxes and eventually, unless he is repaid, become the owner.

One official reaction came recently from Gov. James R. Thompson. The 6-foot-6-inch Governor appeared discomfitted when confronted by the slightly built Mr. Tobin and a throng of protesters in a hall of the State Office Building here.

“We’re here asking you as one of our employees to call a special session [of the Legislature],” Mr. Tobin told the Governor.

Mr. Thompson expressed sympathy with the group’s aims and promised to consider the request, but he has not given an answer yet.

At ’s meeting, the crowd that cheered Mr. Tobin repeatedly shouted down public officials who appeared on the platform with him to try to explain the reasons for the tax increases and how they were assessed. But, despite the jeers and boos, the officials gave sympathetic responses and some concessions to the taxpayers’ demands.

One official, George Dunne, who as president of the County Board is Cook County’s chief executive officer, said he would support a move in the Legislature for a tax rollback.

Another, Dan Pierce, counsel for the office of Thomas M. Tully, the county assessor, said Mr. Tully would urge the Cook County delegation to support a move in the Legislature for a lid on property tax increases.

One reason for the vehemence of the protests is a new system of tax assessment affecting this year’s tax payments. In the past, assessments have been based on “bricks and mortar,” or original construction costs, a system that gave tax advantage to older houses.

But last year, Mr. Tully began a system of taxation based on market values — prices at which homes of similar quality were being sold. In some cases, this resulted in property tax increases running as high as 300 percent. The county reassesses one-fourth of its property each year. , it was the turn of the northern quadrant.

Among those hardest hit were Mr. and Mrs. John Keeley, who own a modest 100-year-old frame home with three bedrooms in Wheeling, a community on the northern edge of the county.

Mrs. Keeley, who is 61 years old, said in an interview at her home that her taxes had risen from $1,253 last year to $3,371 this year.

Crimp in Retirement Plans

“We’re not retiring yet, and at this rate we won’t ever be,” she said. Her husband, a self-employed printer, is 64.

“I don’t understand it,” she continued. “The school enrollment keeps going down, and some schools are closed, but they keep asking for more money.”

Mr. Pierce, of the tax assessor’s counsel, said he, too, was puzzled by the need for higher budgets. The assessor’s office, he said, assesses taxes in accordance with the county budget, which is set to meet the needs of the county’s 642 different taxing entities, including cities, villages, school districts, and park districts.

“There’s no question that the taxes are too high,” Mr. Pierce said, noting that many school districts were raising budget requests at a time when enrollments were declining.

He cited several suburban school districts where the budgets had risen from 25 to 100 percent since , and said the budget for the city of Evanston had doubled in that same period.

For the northern quadrant over all Mr. Pierce said, the assessed valuation of property for tax purposes had risen 9 percent in the last year.

“A good question,” he said, “is whether they need all that money.”

Tobin apparently found his niche: he is still the Director of the National Taxpayers of Illinois today. Ironically, there’s another economist named James Tobin, an economics “Nobel” winner, who is a (notorious?) Keynesian and whose name comes up from time to time these days when people propose a new global tax on financial transactions, sometimes calling it a “Tobin Tax” in his honor.

Governor Thompson rejected the demand to reconvene the legislature a few days after this article hit the press. The government pulled out that classic steam-releasing technique of convening a committee to study the problem. This only made things worse, since the committee recommended switching the quadrennial property reassessment to an annual one, which, in the midst of the 1970s inflation, would have added up to more frequent tax increases.

This all was going on at around the same time that Proposition 13 in California turned a similar tax revolt into a successful state constitutional amendment. Illinois voters didn’t have the same sort of referendum power built into their state constitution, so they were stuck with petitioning elected officials or engaging in civil disobedience.