Sunshine on tax appeals
Monday, April 23, 2007
If you wanted to discourage public scrutiny of a government body that takes care of its friends at the expense of everyone else, you could do worse than give it an obscure name such as Cook County Board of Review. First obvious question: review of what?
Answer: This three-member board reviews appeals of the property valuations that help determine property taxes. Or, to be candid: The board oversees an ethical cesspool in which attorneys make fat political donations to board members and then win big assessment reductions for their clients. The process is hard for citizens to follow -- doubtless by design.
An ordinance amendment now before the Cook County Board would shine some badly needed sunlight on this cozy cottage industry.
How cozy? This page reported before the November election that for every $1 the board reduced valuations for Cook County residential owners last year, commercial and other non-residential properties got $7.75 in cuts.
In 1996, the board (which then had a different name and composition) awarded assessment reductions of $1 million or more to seven properties. In 1997, the number dropped to five. By 2004, however, the number of million-dollar reductions awarded by the board had shot up to 178. In 2005, it was 212. In 2006 -- with the board fielding appeals from the south triennial district, which has the smallest number of high-value properties -- the number of million-dollar assessment cuts was still a remarkable 170.
What makes this ultra-galling is that when the Board of Review cuts a valuation, that tax burden is redistributed to all other taxpayers.
Increasing real estate values and procedural changes explain part of the growth in huge assessment reductions. But there are likelier reasons: all those campaign contributions and the board's lack of transparency in divulging how it decides which tax appeals have merit.
County Board member Michael Quigley has tried before to disrupt the status quo at the Board of Review. Now Quigley is back, with co-sponsors Liz Doody Gorman, Gregg Goslin and Peter Silvestri. One of their proposals would require that all Cook County tax appeals be posted on the Internet. Citizens could scour Board of Review and assessor's sites to see the name of each applicant for a reduction, the property's address, the disposition of the appeal and reasoning behind it, and -- this is the fun part -- names of the attorneys who shepherded the appeal.
Assessor James Houlihan already posts some of this info online for what's usually the first level of appeal. But making all of this easy to locate and search would allow citizens to police the decision-making process for patterns of fairness or favoritism.
Another proposal from the County Board quartet essentially would put limits on lawyers' contributions in Board of Review races. Tempting as that may be, it's an infringement on free speech. Voters have dumped two Board of Review incumbents in recent years. Giving them easy access to information about whose appeals succeed and whose fail gives citizens further empowerment to oust incumbents who give more loyalty to lawyers than to taxpayers.
The Board of Review got one breath of fresh air with the election in 2004 of reform-minded Democrat Larry Rogers Jr. Democrat Brendan Houlihan's defeat of incumbent Republican Maureen Murphy last November was another move toward greater transparency. We can hope that the board's third member, old-school Democrat Joseph Berrios, is browsing through brochures for Sunbelt retirement condos.
By putting sunshine on tax appeals, the Cook County Board can enable the kind of scrutiny the Board of Review has long needed.