Kill a bill that would block reformers from lowering your property taxes

The Cook County Board of Review has a lot to say about how much you pay. They should not all be lawyers.

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The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield

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Let’s slam the door on many of the good government reformers who might want to lower property taxes on homes in Cook County, shall we?

No. Please, no.

But that would be the effect of an ill-advised amendment tacked onto a shell bill that passed out of committee on Wednesday in the Illinois House. It would bar anyone from becoming a Cook County Board of Review commissioner who is not a licensed attorney. That would weed out a lot of good government types. It also would weed out many experts in real estate and appraisals, whom you would think would be ideal candidates to sit on a board that hears appeals of property assessments set by the county assessor.  

It would, in fact, ban the vast majority of county residents from running for one of the three seats on a board that has the power to hit every property owner hard in the wallet.

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And who happen to be licensed attorneys? Why, the three incumbents on the board, all of whom must run for reelection next year because of redistricting.

Understand this joke of a proposal for what it is: A Cook County incumbent protection bill. It would not even apply to the other 101 counties in Illinois. Should Dan Patlak, who lost his seat as the only Republican on the Board of Review in the last election, want to run again, he would be out of luck. He is not a lawyer.

Lately, the three incumbent commissioners have been busy lowering assessments on commercial property by a significant amount. But every time an assessment is lowered on, say, a big downtown skyscraper, all other property owners in the county must chip in enough to make up the difference.

Who’s footing that bill? Look in the mirror.

There’s room for honest disagreement as to whether the board is making the right calls, but there’s no doubt that the best possible people should be on the board to make those calls. And, sorry, lawyers, but you don’t have a monopoly on the skills it takes to be a good public servant.

Board of Review Commissioner Michael M. Cabonargi, who supports the bill along with Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr., says the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that only lawyers or individuals representing themselves can appear before the Board of Review because it is a quasi-judicial agency. Therefore, Cabonargi and Rogers reason, only licensed attorneys should sit on the board.

But that would rule out people like Maureen Murphy, a former commissioner who had been chair of the Illinois House Revenue Committee, a Realtor, the Worth Township clerk and head of a Realtors’ association legislative committee.

Do Cabonargi and Rogers honestly want to argue, with a straight face, that Murphy, despite her deep experience in public finance and real estate, was insufficiently qualified to serve on the Board of Review?

As a commissioner, Murphy was not much of a reformer, but she clearly was better qualified than some kid just out of law school who has set up shop to handle divorce cases.

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Plenty of elected officials steeped in the business of lawmaking are not lawyers and it matters not a bit. Among them are — or have been — state legislators, members of Congress and even justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, who points out that other large jurisdictions around the country don’t require tax appeals board members to be lawyers, opposes the bill, as does Tammy Wendt, one of the three Board of Review commissioners. So does the Cook County Township Assessors Association.

Ali ElSaffar, president of the assessors association, points out that one of the association’s members is a real estate appraiser with about 20 years of experience in assessment. Another has eight years of experience as an assessor and also worked in the Cook County assessor’s office for about 20 years.

People with that kind of experience, ElSaffar said, would be strong candidates to serve on the Board of Review. He himself, by the way, is a lawyer and the assessor in Oak Park Township.  

Late on Friday, we heard there’s talk now of rewriting the bill, which did not meet a deadline for third readings but is far from dead. It can be revived. The rewrite would allow at least some non-lawyers with good assessment credentials to run for the board, which would beat the current bad proposal.

But better yet, there should be no such restrictions.

Not unless somebody can come up with better arguments than we’ve heard so far.

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