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Staff feud at tax appeals board turns nasty
Members of the Board of Review accuse each other of lying, incompetence, political favoritism and more in a dispute over who gets how many staff aides.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

A personnel dispute at the agency that often has the final say on the size of your property tax bill has turned into a nasty verbal war, with charges of lying, incompetence, political favoritism and more being hurled by the partisans.

On one side of a battle that has lots of fur flying at the Cook County Board of Review is Dan Patlak, one of a handful of Republicans to hold county office. He says recent staffing decisions have shortchanged his office to the advantage of the two Democrats who hold the other seats on the board, Larry Rogers and Mike Cabonargi.

On the other are Carbonargi and Rogers, who say that there are good reasons why they should have more staff—among them questions about the "quality" of Patlak's aides and whether they do as much work as those employed by the Democratic commissioners.

The agency, once known as the Board of (Tax) Appeals, is the first place that property owners usually go when they think the county assessor has overvalued their property for tax purposes. Appeals also can be made to the Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board or even taken to court, though the Board of Review usually has the final word. The commissioners each are elected from single-member districts, two mostly in the city and the other suburban, and for many years has had a Democratic majority, with the chairmanship by law rotating annually among them.

The board generally makes little news. But Patlak says he decided to generate some after being informed that he would get only one of the 11 additional staffers included in the new county budget that went into effect Dec. 1. The jobs each pay between $60,000 and $90,000 a year. Currently, he has 23 staffers to 21 for Cabonargi and 27 for Rogers, but under the new distribution would have just 24, short of Rogers' 32 and Cabonargi's 26.

At a board meeting Dec. 3, Patlak—who became board chairman at the session—offered a resolution to combine everything together and award each commissioner 30 jobs each to fill. The motion failed for lack of a second.

"I am very disappointed," he said in a statement later. "Politics should not enter the property tax review process." He added, "This is an egregious misuse of county resources."

Cabonargi responded by accusing Patlak, in so many words, of being hypocritical, noting that Patlak today has two more jobs than he does. (Patlak notes that Rogers has more than either of them.) Cabonargi says the 11 new slots in large part are designed to compensate himself and Rogers for technical help they give school districts and other local taxing bodies in trying to fend off unwarranted decisions to slash assessments by the Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board. Patlak has declined to participate in that process, according to Cabonargi.

Patlak says that's "100 percent false," insisting that his staff is heavily involved in some PTAB cases, just like those who work for the other commissioners.

Rogers takes Cabonargi’s side of the PTAB matter and offers a second reason why Patlak should get fewer staffers than the other commissioners: "the quality" of those Patlak already has working for him.

Rogers particularly points to Patlak’s chief of staff, who is married to a former staffer who is the Wheeling Township GOP committeewoman. The chief of staff "handles no appeals," because he has no real experience in that field, Rogers says.

"With limited resources and obligation to get the (appeals) job done in a relatively short period of time, we have had to make some difficult decisions about allocation of staff resources," he concludes, adding that some people Patlak is counting as working for him really work for the entire board.

Patlak responds that Rogers' allegations are "a smokescreen" for what's really going on. "I'll put my staff up against his (Rogers') any day of the week, and you can quote me," he declares.

In fact, the chief of staff's wife resigned because it would not be proper for her husband to supervise her work, Patlak says. And the chief is qualified to hear cases, but his time is better spent supervising those who handle cases rather than doing so himself. "I just have a different management style" than the other commissioners, Patlak says.

A spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who sets the budget, says she's staying out of the dispute. It's up to the commissioners to resolve how to distribute the new staff, as well as a few others that may be coming later in the fiscal year, she says.

Meanwhile, with newly installed Assessor Fritz Kaegi shaking up things in his office and the board at war with itself, county taxpayers could have some interesting times ahead.

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