Eaton: Property assessment and political clout in Cook County
By Fran Eaton December 13, 2011 8:54PM
Updated: January 15, 2012 8:19AM
No one’s in the mood right now, even with the holiday spirit, to pay someone else’s share of taxes. We’ll bite the bullet and pay what we must to keep schools open, fire trucks responding, garbage collected and water running.
But with reassessments rising when the real estate market tells us our homes and businesses are worth less than three years ago, our blood pressure increases. Where is all that money going? Why do we have to pay so much more to live in the same house we’ve lived in for years?
Those are fair questions, and the same ones that Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Dan Patlak hears when he travels throughout the county, providing tax appeal workshops for frustrated, overburdened taxpayers.
The board of review is a Hail Mary pass for some county residents, who desperately need help to keep their homes when the property tax becomes too burdensome. For some, getting the board to lower their assessment could save thousands of dollars.
The board of review offers appeal forms online. You can also obtain a form and mail it in. Some homeowners hire a lawyer to handle the appeal, but it’s not necessary. Some township assessors offer the service. Owners of business property are required to hire an attorney.
And it’s that legal counsel that has many Cook County taxpayers questioning the process. Does the board of review give unfair advantage to appeals by major businesses represented by the law firms of House Speaker Mike Madigan or Senate President John Cullerton?
The two powerful pols’ firms specialize in property assessment appeals, many involving large businesses or downtown Chicago skyscrapers. Think a board of review analyst studying an appeal to lower an assessment by $1 million or more doesn’t notice that a familiar, clout-heavy law firm is involved?
Saving a client at least $1 million could earn the law firm a third of the money saved through the appeal. That’s some mighty big bucks.
But Patlak says Cullerton and Madigan don’t monopolize big-business appeals.
“There are probably in excess of 100 law firms ... that come to the board of review for their clients,” Patlak said. “Certainly, the Cullerton and Madigan law firms are prominent, and they have many clients. But by no means do they represent the majority of property owners that come before the board of review.”
So Cook County residents shouldn’t be concerned about the role of political influence in the board’s decisions on such appeals?
“There’s always a concern, you never want to close your eyes to possible wrongdoing. It’s important to have checks and balances,” Patlak said. “There’s already checks and balances at the board with three commissioners, but there needs to be more than one party represented.”
He also said the board is required by law to keep its files for more than five years, files that contain analysts’ notes and recommendations. Those files are available to anyone who files a freedom of information request.
“You could submit those files to your own appraiser to see if decisions concerning the Cullerton or the Madigan firms looked odd,” Patlak said.
But the role of clout-heavy law firms isn’t the only problem, Palos Park businessman Sean Morrison said. Those same firms also make generous campaign contributions to the board of review commissioners, he said.
Morrison said he’s frustrated because Patlak assured him in 2010 that he would fight the disturbingly cozy relationship between the board members and the tax lawyers. But then Patlak took donations from attorneys who practice before the board — more than $161,000 in the two years he has been on the board, according to Morrison.
“Maybe they’re not expecting anything, but maybe they are,” Morrison said.
Morrison is challenging Patlak a second time in the March Republican primary election. Having lost to Patlak two years ago, Morrison says he’s running again because he’s disappointed that Patlak has done little to fight the effect of political clout on the board of review.
Morrison, who heads a national security firm, challenged Patlak to restrict to $250 any campaign donation from a lawyer who represents clients before the board.
But how fair is it that Morrison, who said he will use personal funds for his campaign, demands a donation limit when Patlak’s only source of income is his job as board of review commissioner?
“There’s lots of ways to raise money,” Morrison said. “It takes hard work, but there’s ways to raise money besides taking money from lawyers.”
Morrison said Democrats are focused on regaining a third seat on the three-member board, and he’s the best candidate to oppose Casey Griffin, of Midlothian, a nephew of powerful Chicago Democrat Jeremiah Joyce, a close ally of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Griffin is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for the board’s 1st District seat.
There’s still more you should know about the board of review. Read about it next week.
Fran Eaton is a Southland resident who co-founded and edits the conservative political blog, illinoisreview.com