Editorial: With Cook County property tax, the absurdity continues, but attorneys always win
Tuesday, November 15, 2022
by EDITORIAL BOARD
In the wacky, crazy, corrupt, counterintuitive world that is the collection of property taxes in Cook County, this should have been a rare, good-news week.
On Tuesday, beleaguered, cash-strapped taxpayers actually got to find out how much they were being expected to pay (a lot) in the second installment of the year’s property tax bills. And, hallelujah!, those bills, delayed by months (we all were told) due to a variety of computer-aided snafus, even arrived in enough time for taxpayers to deduct those big checks from their 2022 federal taxes. At least to the limited amount now allowed.
When we talked with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle during endorsement season, she stopped short of promising such a conclusion to the absurdity of a massive unit of local government somehow being unable to efficiently bill its customers for the money needed to provide necessary services. Cook County was not, of course, about to allow taxpayers to take another three months to figure out how they wanted to pay. But it demanded that accommodation for itself.
But credit where it’s due, we planned to write. Preckwinkle, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi had at least got the bills out by the end of the year. They came through as we had hoped when we endorsed all three of them.
But then we read about what has been going on at the Cook County Board of Review and our mood darkened.
First, let’s stipulate that a fair and transparent appeals process is crucial to any legal or administrative process in a democracy. In federal court, the decision of a district judge can be overturned or otherwise adjusted by an appellate judge if the Court of Appeals finds that mistakes were made, due process was not granted, or unsound reasoning prevailed.
So, yes, anyone who pays property taxes in Cook County, be they residential or commercial property owners, has a right to appeal. Mistakes happen. Errors are made. Taxpayers deserve a second look and, if they wish, to be represented by an attorney.
But here’s the rub. The U.S. Constitution is the same at all levels of the judicial system. The Court of Appeals is charged with determining if the law was applied fairly and justly. It does not suddenly introduce an entirely different set of rules. That’s true of courts at any level and it’s baked into our understanding of the word “appeal,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a legal proceeding by which a case is brought before a higher court for review of the decision of a lower court.” Implied is not a change in criteria but a review of fairness or competence.
That all might sound obvious. But not in Cook County.
As Abby Gallun explained in Crain’s Chicago Business, the county’s three-person Board of Review (where you go when you want to challenge the assessor’s valuation of your property) actually uses a different valuation methodology for commercial properties that is much more friendly to landlords than Kaegi’s initial calculations.
As a result, Gallun wrote, the expected transfer of the property tax burden from residential to commercial taxpayers this year never happened. In fact, homeowners actually paid a higher percentage of the tax burden than they did before, even though Kaegi has repeatedly said that commercial landlords were not paying their fair share.
How on earth did that happen? Simple. The attorneys for commercial taxpayers got their clients’ tax bills slashed on appeal.
Why were so many mistakes made in the original valuation? Duh! They weren’t mistakes at all. Kaegi’s office got them right according to its own set of rules. The appeals worked because, in simple terms, the Board of Review applied different criteria.
It’s mind-blowing. It’s as if one judge found a defendant not guilty only for a higher court to decide that the law used by the lower court was not valid and that it preferred to use another law instead. If this were happening outside the clouded arena of property taxes, there would be outrage.
Of course, the big commercial interests know about the procedures at the Board of Review. And their attorneys, for whom this whole thing is one of the most lucrative enterprises since defending young murderesses before all-male Cook County juries, sure as heck knew the score.
In went the appeals, down went the bills, out went the hefty percentage to the attorneys and up went the homeowners’ share of the burden. Unbelievable.
Well, believable but outrageous. And deeply unfair.
We offer a modest proposal. Rather than trying to confound Kaegi’s methods and attempts at reform, the Board of Review should focus on making sure the elected assessor’s formula has been correctly applied. Instead of continuing the yearslong practice of routinely successful appeals (if you have the right attorney), changes should be rare. Most of the assessments should be correct the first time, just as most legal appeals are made but are not successful.
We all know that’s not what happens here. Those commercial taxpayers knew they had to appeal to a more sympathetic body, knew they had to rely on their attorneys and knew they would win out if they did so.
If they have a case, and some of them surely did, it should be made at the assessor level. This game, which has already ensnared elected officials with legal practices, has to end now.
One set of criteria, please. An open and fair appeals process using that set of criteria. Timely billing. And an end to what is, an essence, an obligation to pay off attorneys.
Why is this so much to ask? All that Cook County citizens are trying to do is pay their property tax bills.