Cook County’s property tax system needs reform. Here’s how to fix it.

Accuracy in assessments, fair hiring, reforming the tax appeals process are some measures that must change, former Cook County Clerk David Orr writes.

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Laura Paz speaks outside City Hall on Dec. 30, as Pilsen residents involved in community organizations and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) protested what they say is a sharp hike in their Cook County property tax bills/

Pilsen residents and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) protested in December 2022 after a sharp hike in their Cook County property tax bills, some of which doubled or tripled from 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

New reassessments, mayoral campaign promises, criminal convictions — the property tax system seems to be constantly in the news in Chicago and Cook County.

In part that’s because property taxes are simply far too high, mainly a result of over-reliance on this revenue source to fund our schools. In part, it’s the legacy of a corrupt assessment system and ongoing efforts to reform that system.

One top priority for reform is the data modernization bill sponsored by state Rep. Will Davis and backed by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi.

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HB 1288 would bring the assessor’s office in line with other large jurisdictions that require that large commercial properties submit detailed data on income, expenses and vacancies. That’s the data most property owners submit when they appeal their assessments.

The measure would increase accuracy and would likely reduce the need to appeal. It would particularly help neighborhood businesses, which should not be assessed based on regional assumptions. It’s based on legislation in New York City and mirrors requirements in the majority of large counties across the country, which coexist with strong commercial development trends.

As Kaegi emphasizes, better data means fairer assessments — and HB 1288 will further boost his success in correcting systematic undervaluing of large commercial properties.

Tax sales, Board of Review, hiring

Other legislation now under consideration would fix some of the problems with tax sales of delinquent properties, in which low-income homeowners can now lose their homes and their entire equity over relatively small shortfalls. These would lower interest rates and consider establishing payment plans for late taxes; ensure troubled homeowners have access to information and resources; and close huge sale-in-error loopholes that provide huge unearned profits to private equity investors.

Other measures seek to replenish the county’s Indemnity Fund, which is supposed to reimburse homeowners for lost equity in tax sales, but which is hopelessly underfunded.

Meanwhile, things may be changing at the Cook County Board of Review — the agency that considers appeals to assessments — with two new commissioners elected in November. The County Board recently mandated a feasibility study of integrating the board into the computer system now being adopted by the rest of the county’s tax agencies. Integration would reduce delays and save money.

Late last year, outgoing commissioners rushed through an employment plan, more than two years after the county’s inspector general found politically motivated hiring practices at the agency. The plan must be followed, and the rest of the IG’s recommendations must be implemented, including a transparent database to track hiring processes.

And the County Board should look into the $100,000 contract to an outside legal firm to conduct an internal investigation after a Board of Review employee was charged in a bribery scheme. The firm reported reaching no conclusions after the employee refused to cooperate, and we’ve been told no written report was completed.

We need a forensic audit of appeals handled by that employee, who pleaded guilty last year. Was he telling the truth when he claimed he was just the middleman, or when he changed his story after his arrest? Two previous federal investigations have revealed groups of agency employees working together in similar schemes.

Kaegi recently reset the assessments of 559 large commercial properties to their 2021 values, giving new board members a chance to reconsider reductions totaling $2.7 billion granted by their predecessors. Those reductions were part of a larger reduction of tax burden for the largest property owners by the old Board of Review.

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And after years in which assessment officials reaped huge political contributions from property tax attorneys who practiced before them — and who benefited from skewed assessments that shifted the burden to homeowners and small businesses — new Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele followed Kaegi’s lead and refused to accept donations from property tax attorneys. This needs to become the standard for all commissioners.

Finally, it’s time to roll back the Property Tax Appeals Board, a third level of appeal that was extended to Cook County by Republicans in 1995 over the objections of the Civic Federation and many others. PTAB now has a huge backlog of cases and serves mainly to further erode big property owners’ share of the tax burden. In addition, we must raise appeals standards so that PTAB and Board of Review are no longer granting excessive reductions based on “junk” appraisals.

Like death, property taxes will probably always be with us. But at least as far as taxes go, we deserve the maximum amount of transparency and fairness.

David Orr is the former Cook County clerk and founder of Good Government Illinois.

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