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Trump, Burke tax break: A million reasons to ditch Property Tax Appeals Board

PTAB is a ticking time-bomb of financial liabilities, threatening to drain billions from school districts and towns.

Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Everyone in Cook County should be disgusted at the Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board’s recent tax appeal giveaway to Trump Tower and Ald. Edward Burke (14th). Last month’s decision to accept Trump Tower’s and Burke’s flimsy property tax valuation excuses will drain $1 million from our schools, libraries, parks and transit agencies. More outrages like this are on the way. It’s part of the design.

If ever we needed more evidence that the experiment of extending PTAB’s jurisdiction to Cook County was an enormous mistake, this valentine to Trump and Burke is it. The decision to create a fourth property tax appeals venue in Cook County, in addition to internal appeals at the assessor, the Board of Review, and the Circuit Court, was hastily made 26 years ago in the dead of the night, introduced five days before the Republican-led General Assembly’s end of session, and passed 72 hours later, with little debate.

Experts predicted disaster. Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes said PTAB was “doomed to fail” and would “bring upheaval to the entire property tax system.” The Chicago Tribune said the change was “needless duplication,” and risked “throwing into chaos [the] tax assessment system.” The Civic Federation was “strongly opposed.” On the other hand, property tax appeals lawyers celebrated, with one jubilant but anonymous practitioner quoted as saying the change would “create a revolution in this business.”

Later, in 2003, when a financial shock wave began to hit schools and taxpayers, the Senate passed a bill to reverse the experiment. But the bill — supported by the City of Chicago — died in the House. Springfield has taken no action since.

Now, the predictions are coming to pass, with hundreds of millions in refunds already paid out and the toll growing year after year. In a 2019 study by the Civic Federation, PTAB-driven tax refunds in Cook County alone had risen at a roughly 20% annual compound growth rate from 2003 through 2017, by which time annual payouts were over $100 million per year. The study cautioned that even this figure was incomplete, because PTAB was still just getting going on the case backlog from the early 2010s.

Extending PTAB’s jurisdiction to Cook stands as a relic of the proposition, long demonstrated as incorrect, that more appeals makes for more fairness. Instead, it stands as perhaps the ultimate example of structural and systemic inequity. By this fourth appeal, PTAB is just whittling down the share of taxes owed by wealthy insiders and pushing more of the burden onto everyone else. This is why other states don’t offer four ways to appeal.

PTAB has a backlog several years long for Cook County, where appeals have mushroomed year after year. It is a ticking time-bomb of financial liabilities, threatening to drain billions from school districts and towns, who will then need to heap these additional obligations and yet more inequity onto suffering taxpayers.

Some, such as the lobby of property tax appeals lawyers who pushed through the expansion in the first place, have an NRA-style solution: adding even more funding to this body, to help them clear the backlog of inequity. No way should we be feeding this beast even more.

There is no need for PTAB to exist for the rest of the state either, given that taxpayers there already have three chances to appeal. Rural school districts have been so devastated by PTAB’s assessment cuts on large properties that they sometimes have to go on multi-year tax refund repayment plans.

Illinois can end this experiment now by owning up to the mistake it made in 1995. The best time to do this was years ago. The second-best time is now.

Barbara Flynn Currie, a former legislator and Illinois House majority leader, sponsored legislation to rescind PTAB’s jurisdiction in Cook County. Fritz Kaegi is the assessor of Cook County.

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