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Sweet deal: This $1.7 million house gets just a $3,000 property tax bill

Monday, July 25, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

The home in leafy Lincoln Park appears to be just as "exceptional and luxurious" as the sales brochure describes. With five bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms, "Calcutta Gold" marble and other features, this three-story mansion can be yours for a mere $1.7 million.

But in the records of the Cook County Assessor's Office, the property at 1849 N. Maud Ave. is listed as a vacant lot, one on which the owner pays just over $3,000 a year in property taxes, a tenth of what it should be.

Who goofed? And how many other goofs like this are there that deprive Chicago Public Schools and other local governments the tax money they need? The questions have led to a three-way finger-pointing match among current and former officials in a tale that involves not only county and city government but a former Bahamas-based resort developer.

According to official records, the site was vacant until late 2008, early 2009, when then owner Christopher Ziebarth obtained a building permit and a mortgage of nearly $1 million. Ziebarth has not been available for comment, but back then he appears to have been the same Ziebarth who was vice president and general counsel of Kerzner International, a resort and vacation property developer that runs the famous Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas. Kerzner recently was acquired by another firm, which says Ziebarth no longer works for it.

Records also indicate the property since has been sold at least twice, with a $1.26 million warranty deed filed in 2012. The property now is in a trust, but taxes have been paid by Jonathan Bilton, according to County Assessor Joe Berrios' office. Bilton has been unavailable for comment and his listing agent, Keith Wilkey of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, declined to comment.

Throughout that period, the property has been valued for tax purposes as a vacant lot, lately with a market value of $171,000. Taxes most recently were $261 a month, or $3,132 a year, according to government records and a listing for the property on Redfin's website

How did a nine-year-old, $1.7 million, three-story luxury home happen to slip through the cracks?

Berrios spokesman Tom Shaer says it's because the Chicago Building Department never notified the assessor of the building permits. That's supposed to happen under the law and prompt an on-sight investigation to set a new tax value. "Further, we were never informed by the city of Chicago that anything of value was being done with the lot."

Shaer also notes that Berrios didn't take office from predecessor Jim Houlihan until December 2010, after the house was erected. "We inherited this matter," he says, adding that "Houlihan had poor record-keeping and many formerly vacant lots hadn't been recorded here as being built on."

The city and Houlihan reject that.

"The Department of Buildings' only role in homeowner assessment for property taxes is sending a report detailing new construction and renovation permits on a monthly basis to the Cook County assessor," says a spokeswoman. "This report includes the permit issuance date, address, description of work and ownership information. We have received no complaints from the Cook County Assessor's Office that data from this time period was not provided."

Says Houlihan, "Joe Berrios has been assessor since 2010. He had no trouble exerting immediate control over the office and its operations."

Why didn't the office notice the increase in value when the house was resold in 2012?

The assessor sets property values not by looking at individual sales prices but by determining an average of all sales for a given neighborhood, Shaer says. As a residential property, he explains, "the sales prices of this parcel were not out-of-line with the rest of the neighborhood."

As it gets new and better technology, the office may consider closer ties between its database and that kept by the county recorder of deeds to provide a double-check of sorts, Shaer adds.

Meanwhile, if the property is worth $1.7 million, as the seller hopes it is, it should have an annual tax bill of $34,250, according to Cook County Clerk David Orr's office, which computes the final tax bill property owners get.

And based on the new information, Berrios has ordered a field inspection of the property, Shaer says. The office legally can seek to collect any shortfall back to 2014.

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