For nearly a decade, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts has lived in a 5,000-square-foot North Shore house nestled on a meticulously landscaped lot complete with a Japanese-style garden.
It’s a showcase Wilmette home a short walk from Lake Michigan. But it’s not the home that Ricketts, who also is finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been paying taxes on.
Instead, records show, Ricketts pays property taxes based on the value of the much older and smaller house that he tore down to make way for the new one, providing him with a huge discount likely totaling tens of thousands of dollars over the years.
State law required Ricketts to notify the assessor that he had built a new home in 2010, but a spokesman for the assessor’s office said there’s no record that Ricketts ever did.
In 2013, Ricketts’ attorney had a chance to tell Cook County tax officials about the new home during a property tax appeal but instead sought a reduction based on the age and size of the old house, according to documents the Tribune obtained through an open-records request. The paperwork included a photo of the century-old home that had been demolished.
After the Tribune asked about the discrepancy, the assessor’s office said it would take a look at Ricketts’ home and recalculate how much it’s worth for tax purposes. And the county Board of Review, which considered the 2013 property tax appeal, said it had launched an investigation.
Ricketts declined to be interviewed and did not answer a list of questions the Tribune submitted via email. Spokesman Brian Baker issued a statement.
”When Mr. Ricketts purchased property in Wilmette more than 10 years ago, he filed all necessary paperwork to build a new home," the statement reads. "Later, he retained a real estate attorney to assist with issues regarding his real estate taxes and assumed everyone involved had the correct information. If a mistake was made, he will work in good faith to fix it.”
The tax attorney, veteran Chicago lawyer James FortCamp of Seyfarth Shaw, did not return a message seeking comment or respond to a list of emailed questions.
Michael Cabonargi, a Democratic Board of Review commissioner, said Ricketts should repay “the property tax relief it now appears he was not entitled to."
“By not paying his fair share, Mr. Ricketts shifted his property taxes to other homeowners," he added.
The fact that the underassessment of Ricketts’ property went undetected by tax officials for nearly a decade illustrates long-standing problems in a county assessment system experts say is deeply flawed. In the case of Ricketts’ house, the problem spans 12 years — from the time the old house was razed — and three county assessors.
New Trier Township officials say they notified the assessor’s office that a building permit had been issued for Ricketts’ new home, which should have triggered an inspection. But the assessor’s office said it has no record that it ever received the information and said no inspection was done.
Property tax experts say such failures are not uncommon. When those errors occur, affluent homeowners end up paying less than their fair share — shifting the overall tax burden onto other property owners.
Even as Ricketts and his wife — anti-tax and free market advocate Sylvie Légère — benefited from the property tax savings, Légère wrote to Wilmette school board officials lamenting the village’s high property tax burden and urged them to avoid another increase.
Ricketts is a member of a billionaire family that secured an $8.5 million county historic renovation property tax break for its rehab of Wrigley Field. That project also is in line to receive more than $100 million in federal tax credits. Ricketts is one of four siblings on the Cubs board of directors. His brother, Tom Ricketts, is board chairman.
In 2006, Ricketts and Légère bought a nearly 100-year-old, 2,500-square-foot house along a leafy Wilmette street. They paid nearly $1.5 million for the property, just down the street from where Tom Ricketts lived at the time, county records show.
Nearly a year later, Todd Ricketts and Légère bought the house next door to the one they already owned. It was smaller — 1,625 square feet — and on a lot half the size, but it gave the couple room to build a new, bigger house and still comply with Wilmette zoning codes. The neighboring property cost $869,000.
The couple then had both homes torn down, as they made plans to start construction of their new dwelling, which was designed by noted architect Dirk Denison and high-end custom homebuilder Altounian Construction.
Plans submitted to Wilmette officials show the couple was building a contemporary two-story house of about 5,000 square feet. The plans also included an 800-square-foot garage and extra outdoor parking spaces on a manicured lot with outdoor patios and a koi pond. The house was completed in February 2010, village records show.
The village approved the building permit in September 2007 and sent the details to the New Trier Township assessor’s office, said Lisa Roberts, Wilmette’s assistant community development director. That November, the permit details were sent to the county assessor, said Leonard Shifflett, the deputy New Trier Township assessor.
But county assessor’s office records include no indication the building permit notification was ever received, said Scott Smith, a spokesman for Assessor Fritz Kaegi, who took office late last year.
“We are not aware of any written correspondence to the office regarding the improvement," Smith said.
When such data arrives downtown, it’s supposed to trigger an inspection by the assessor’s office. But no inspection of the new home was ever done because the office hadn’t received the records to indicate it was necessary, Smith said.
Inspections are key to the valuation process. They help document a new home’s characteristics that are used to determine its assessed value.
The assessed value, in turn, is used to determine the size of the property tax bill. The more valuable the home, the higher the bill. In Ricketts’ case, his bill would have gone up significantly.
The three biggest factors in determining a home’s value are its location, its square footage and its age, said David Merriman, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of public administration who’s an expert on property taxes. Ricketts’ current home is far newer than the one it replaced, and about double the size, so it should have been assessed at a much higher value, Merriman said.
The assessor, however, continued to value Ricketts’ new home as if it were still the old home. For this year’s bill, Ricketts’ property was valued at $993,500, resulting in a tax bill of about $22,800.
So what would Ricketts’ property tax bill be if his home were properly assessed? Kaegi’s office will make that determination in the coming months, but Ricketts’ neighbor provides a basis for comparison.
The house next door to Ricketts is slightly smaller, at about 4,700 square feet. The lot is also slightly smaller. And the neighbor’s house is much older, at 79 years compared with nine years for Ricketts’ new house.
Despite that, the assessor valued the neighbor’s house about 34% higher than Ricketts’ new house — at nearly $1.35 million. Ricketts’ neighbor received a tax bill this year of nearly $31,200.
If Ricketts’ house were assessed more in line with the value of his next-door neighbor’s — a conservative estimate — Ricketts would have paid at least $8,000 more in property taxes this year. Ricketts has been underassessed for nine years, but it’s difficult to hit the total button due to changes in assessments and tax rates over the years.
The example of the next-door neighbor tracks with Merriman’s estimate of what Ricketts’ new house could be valued at for tax purposes. “Clearly, the new house should have been paying a lot higher property taxes,” Merriman said.
There was a chance in 2013 for tax officials to find out that Ricketts’ old house was still being used as the basis for property assessments instead of the new home. But that didn’t happen.
Ricketts’ properties had been reassessed that year, and FortCamp, Ricketts’ attorney, filed an appeal with the county Board of Review asking to lower the assessment on both the property that contains the new house and the adjoining property that contains the side yard.
FortCamp noted that the side yard had been assessed as though a home were still there, but the house had been razed and the land was now vacant, meaning its value was significantly less.
FortCamp also argued that the property containing the Ricketts’ house should have its assessment cut, citing what he said were other similar houses in the neighborhood that had lower assessed values per square foot.
In his appeal paperwork, FortCamp told the review board that the Ricketts’ house was 96 years old and was 2,534 square feet. That, however, is the age and size of Ricketts’ old house, not the new one that had been completed three years earlier. In addition, the photo of the house FortCamp submitted with his appeal was of the Ricketts’ old house that had been torn down, not the new home.
Based on the materials that FortCamp submitted, the review board lowered both the value of the side yard and the property with the Ricketts’ home. That resulted in a relatively small property tax savings for Ricketts.
The Tribune asked the review board about the appeal, and it issued a statement: “In 2013, Todd Ricketts, through his attorney, presented evidence to the Board of Review that appears was outdated and inaccurate. Upon becoming aware, the Board of Review began an investigation into the appeal and the evidence.”
The following year presented another opportunity for the assessment discrepancy to be noticed by tax officials. In 2014, the county assessor again valued the side yard as if it still had a house on it. FortCamp filed another appeal on the side yard, and the assessor finally documented it as vacant property.
Though FortCamp wrote in his appeal brief that “a field check will verify" that the side yard was vacant, there’s no indication in assessor’s records that a field inspection was done. Had the assessor’s office conducted one, the inspector might have noticed that the other half of Ricketts’ property had a newer, larger house on it.
After the Tribune asked about the Ricketts’ property valuation, the assessor’s office said it had started the process of conducting a field inspection and reassessing the parcel that includes Ricketts’ new home, Smith said. The assessor has the authority to revise the assessment going back three years, and property owners can be billed for back taxes in such cases, Smith added.
Andrea Raila, a longtime property tax consultant who ran for county assessor last year, said it’s not at all uncommon for the assessor’s office to be unaware when new, more expensive homes have been built on properties throughout the county.
“It’s very indicative of a widespread problem, and unless the county gives the assessor’s office the resources (needed to hire more inspectors), we’ll never get it right,” Raila said. “It is such an uphill battle, because it has been neglected for so long.”
In the Ricketts case, James Houlihan was assessor in 2007 when the building permit information was sent to the office but not recorded. Under his successor, Joe Berrios, no inspection of Ricketts’ home was done during reassessments in 2013 and 2016. The same was true during this year’s reassessment under Kaegi.
The assessor’s office doesn’t have the staff to inspect all properties every three years, however. A recent audit by the International Association of Assessing Officers concluded that with the current staffing levels at the Cook assessor’s office, it would take 31 years to reinspect all of the county’s 1.8 million parcels. The association recommends reinspection of all parcels every four to six years.
But the association also noted that proper use of technology could lower the number of inspectors needed. The newly elected Kaegi has suggested the county’s robust satellite mapping system could be used to detect changes made to parcels across the county.
“In the near future, our office will be hiring additional managers in our valuations area, and increase its use of technology,” said Smith, Kaegi’s spokesman.
The Ricketts family sought hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies to renovate Wrigley Field, but were denied. They did, however, qualify for a county property tax break for fixing the old ballpark, as well as federal tax credits for the historic renovation.
In recent years, Todd Ricketts also has become known for his connections to President Donald Trump. The president once considered him for commerce secretary, but Ricketts withdrew. Ricketts is now finance chairman of both the RNC and the Trump Victory Committee, a joint fundraising venture of the president’s reelection campaign and the RNC.
Légère, Ricketts’ wife, a former technology manager for JPMorgan Chase & Co., is a founder and president of The Policy Circle, a nonpartisan coalition of women that believe “public policy should foster creativity in a open economy and that government should spend our tax dollars responsibly.”
Locally, she’s let her voice be heard on property tax issues. Wilmette Public Schools District 39 posted an October 2017 email from Légère to board members.
“Our taxes are high here in Wilmette (overall in Illinois), let’s avoid another tax increase and seek to reduce administrative costs of the district,” Légère wrote in an email suggesting “organizational efficiencies” could be achieved by working with another elementary school district in the village.