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Column: Ethically, Todd Ricketts owes Cook County six more years of property taxes on his Wilmette house. He should pay up.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

by Eric Zorn

Column: Ethically, Todd Ricketts owes Cook County six more years of property taxes on his Wilmette house. He should pay up.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |
SEP 10, 2019
Column: Ethically, Todd Ricketts owes Cook County six more years of property taxes on his Wilmette house. He should pay up.
Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, shown in 2018, recently paid more than $60,000 in back property taxes on his Wilmette home. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts recently paid more than $60,000 in back property taxes the law says he will owe in light of a Tribune report that his Wilmette home has long been dramatically underassessed.

Although he could have waited until next year when the actual bill came due, Ricketts, who is also the Republican National Committee finance chair, cut a check to Cook County in July not long after the Tribune’s Hal Dardick reported that assessment records hadn’t been updated to show that he and his wife had demolished an old house they owned and built in its place a house roughly twice the size and twice the value.

It was a speedy gesture of compliance, but really just a down payment on his ethical obligation to right the wrong from which he has benefited.

The inaccurately low assessments were the result of “a series of good faith miscommunications,” according to a letter by Ricketts’ attorney Patrick Collins.

 

Those “miscommunications” included an assessment appeal filed by James FortCamp, another attorney for Ricketts, in which he submitted a 6-year-old photo and description of the old house from before it had been torn down.

“While Mr. Ricketts takes responsibility for the errors, there was no intent to deceive anyone,” said Collins’ letter.

This photograph submitted by Todd Ricketts' attorney for a property tax appeal shows an old house that's since been torn down. It's half the size of new home Ricketts built to replace it.
This photograph submitted by Todd Ricketts' attorney for a property tax appeal shows an old house that's since been torn down. It's half the size of new home Ricketts built to replace it. (Cook County Board of Review records)

It’s possible.

Ricketts is very wealthy, very busy and very important, and he might well not personally oversee such household financial matters. He certainly has people — accountants, executive assistants, lawyers and the like — who handle many routine bookkeeping and organizational chores, and it doesn’t beggar belief that a series of crossed wires and honestly faulty assumptions resulted in the dramatically lower property tax bills.

Just to be sure, though, the Cook County Board of Review last week referred its investigation to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for either a civil or criminal review to see if anyone involved in these “miscommunications” knowingly misled the assessor’s office.

But as we wait with an open mind for the results of that review, we should note that if Ricketts truly intends to take “responsibility for the errors,” as his lawyer wrote, he should pay back all of his undeserved gains, not just the ones that the law will require him to pay.

 

His fancy new house was completed in February 2010, after all. For some reason — it’s a mystery! — the assessor’s office wasn’t notified of the upgrade, according to records, and the family continued receiving and paying property tax bills for the next nine years as though they were living in the old house.
Estimated annual savings? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000.
The more than $60,000 Ricketts paid in July covers just the last three years’ benefit of his underassessment.

A state law passed in 2011 sets three years as the maximum time assessors can go back in time to collect on errors like this.

 

It’s a kind of statute of limitations intended to prevent backbreaking retrospective tax bills, whether the inaccurate assessments were rooted in fraud, honest misunderstandings or simple carelessness.

An existing home was torn down to make room for this home in Wilmette, but the property was still taxed as if the 2,534-square-foot old home hadn't been torn down.
An existing home was torn down to make room for this home in Wilmette, but the property was still taxed as if the 2,534-square-foot old home hadn't been torn down. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

The morally sound course of action for Ricketts is to pay it all anyway — to agree to work with the county to calculate the difference between what he should have been paying and what he actually paid since 2010 and then write a check to cover the balance — about twice again what he’s already paid.

 

It would be similar to the make-good gesture then-candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker made last October when he paid the county $331,432 to compensate for the property tax benefit he received over five years when toilets and other fixtures were disconnected in a mansion he was rehabbing, a move that lowered the value of the home by rendering it technically uninhabitable.

The county’s inspector general called it a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers, but no formal judgment has been entered in the case, and the billionaire Pritzker — who also probably has people to deal with matters like this — insists that “all the rules were followed.”

And yes, it was an obvious effort by the now-governor to try to put the controversy — and toilet jokes — behind him before the November election. But it was also a stand-up gesture, one that Ricketts should learn from and emulate.

 

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