Chicago ‘at a crossroads’ because of rising crime, skyrocketing commercial property taxes, business leader says

Chicago is “at a crossroads” because of rising crime and “skyrocketing” commercial property taxes, and how and when those vexing issues are confronted will determine which direction the city goes, the head of a preeminent business group said Thursday.

Jack Lavin, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said what was a “low murmur has become a loud roar” from business leaders clamoring for solutions to those pressing issues.

Crime is paramount. So is the perception of public safety and the rampant fear that Chicago is no longer a safe place to live, work, shop and visit.

“There’s a sense of no plan. That’s what’s most concerning to the business community,” Lavin told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Our businesses — and it’s not just retail as you hear on the Mag Mile. It’s restaurants, offices returning to work, banks. They want to know how are we’re gonna solve the violence and the public safety problem this week. This weekend. Tomorrow.”

Lavin said he’s all for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to fill 1,000 police vacancies, rebuild South and West side commercial corridors and earmark tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds for youth employment, recreation, violence prevention and mental health.

But what Chicago’s business community is clamoring for is a “strategy for the short and medium term for how we’re gonna reduce retail theft, carjackings, shootings and who is prosecuted.”

Through Dec. 14, there have been 775 homicides in 2021. That’s 4% higher than last year and a whopping 61% over the 479 murders during the same period in 2019.

At least 4,328 people have been shot in Chicago this year, compared to 4,013 shooting victims in 2020 and 2,556 in 2019. Carjackings are up 31 percent from last year’s troubling levels—from 1,303 to 1,707. In 2019, Chicago recorded 554 carjackings during the same period.

To solve the crisis, Lavin said Lightfoot, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chief Judge Tim Evans need to “communicate more than just through the media.”

“The state’s attorney just said she’s gonna relook at the [$1,000] threshold for prosecuting retail thefts [as felonies]. Those are the kinds of things that [can happen] if we all get together to put a plan in place and see where we’re having a problem, and then try to work together. How are police arresting people? How are they being prosecuted? What do they need to prosecute?” Lavin said.

The second pressing issue for Chicago businesses is the decision by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to use the triennial reassessment process to shift the property tax burden away from homeowners and toward commercial property.

Lavin said it resulted in a 400% increase in the assessment for Ford Motor Co.’s assembly plant on the Southeast Side and a 1,000% increase for O’Hare Airport that’s passed along to major airlines.

“If Ford doesn’t reinvest in their facility because their property taxes went up 400%, people can’t live in houses or their property taxes for their houses are gonna go up significantly like they have in the south suburbs,” Lavin said.

“This will cause an economic shock to the system. It will go up so high, it’ll freeze investment. That’s gonna interfere with our economic recovery.”

To soften the blow, Lavin urged Kaegi to phase in skyrocketing assessments over “at least two or three triennial assessments.” That would be as long as 10 years.

Scott Smith, a spokesperson for the assessor’s office, said Illinois tax law “makes absolutely no allowance” for a phasing in of reassessments. Smith summarily dismissed Lavin’s claim that skyrocketing assessments on commercial property will “freeze” business investment.

“Mr. Lavin has been predicting this type of doom and gloom since Assessor Kaegi began reassessing properties in 2019, and it has not come to pass,” Smith said.

“The International Association of Assessing Officers, the Chicago Tribune, Pro-Publica — all of them — have said that, in the past, large commercial properties downtown have been underassessed. What we are currently doing is assessing them more accurately than in the past.”

Smith noted that a 400% increase in the assessment of commercial property “does not lead to the same increase” in property taxes. Property taxes based on the new assessment of commercial property will be released until 2022.

As for O’Hare Airport, Smith said, what was reassessed were leaseholds held by airlines and other vendors, not the airport itself.

“During the appeals process, our office has been in communication with the airlines to ensure we are using the best possible data on their assessments. Once all is said and done, the aggregate assessment increase from 2020 to 2021 for cargo, hangar, and terminal areas is approximately 190%,” Smith said.

Contributing: David Struett