Cook County assessor candidate calls for ban on aldermen serving as property tax attorneys

Cook County assessor candidate calls for ban on aldermen serving as property tax attorneys

The Democratic nominee in the Cook County assessor’s race is voicing support for a ban on city aldermen doubling as property tax appeals attorneys, an arrangement that encourages conflicts of interest.

The latest call for a ban on city lawmakers from moonlighting as property tax attorneys came from likely Cook County assessor to-be, Fritz Kaegi.

In a statement issued Aug. 23, the Democratic nominee for assessor endorsed Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to bar local elected officials from doubling as “land-use, zoning or real estate attorneys,” in addition to collecting their six-figure annual aldermanic salary.

In March, Kaegi defeated incumbent Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios in the Democratic primary of the assessor’s race. Berrios’ office came under fire in 2017 when a study released by the Chicago Tribune found the county’s assessment process disproportionately harms low-income homeowners. The study found that while the county assessor’s office commonly undervalues commercial properties in wealthier areas, properties in disadvantaged areas are frequently overvalued. A February report commissioned by Berrios and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle confirmed those findings.

Cook County’s opaque and complex property tax system has created a lucrative business for individuals and firms that handle property tax appeals, including Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward. Burke’s firm handled property tax appeals for Trump Tower for years, saving the building’s owners more than $14 million in appealing valuations made by the Cook County Assessor’s Office. In January, Burke sidelined an effort led by some Chicago City Council members to revisit the assessed property values of seven commercial buildings in the Loop, two of which are represented by Burke’s firm.

Other local officials whose private interests appear to conflict with their aldermanic authority include Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th Ward, and former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, 11th Ward. Both O’Connor and Thompson hold careers in land-use law while exercising influence over city zoning rules from their seats in City Council.

But the practice is not limited to members of City Council. For example, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s law firm won $1.7 billion in assessed value reductions from the Cook County assessor between 2011 and 2016, a December 2017 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found. In fact, the report found Madigan to be the biggest player in commercial property tax appeals.

In a state shouldering among the highest property taxes in the nation, taxpayers might question the legitimacy of a system that allows lawmakers to influence property tax policy while profiting as attorneys who appeal those property taxes.

Fortunately, there are a pair of bills in the General Assembly – House Bill 4435 and Senate Bill 2495 – that would provide such restrictions. Both bills, introduced by state Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, and state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, respectively, would provide that “no legislator may accept or participate in any way in any representation case” before any unit of government on matters involving “a challenge to any tax or proposed assessment of any tax or fee.”

Taxpayers should pressure state lawmakers to advance these commonsense proposals. Illinoisans can sign Illinois Policy’s petition here to voice their support for a statewide ban on lawmakers acting as property tax appeal lawyers.

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