In 2018, Vantage Oak Park, the massive apartment tower at 150 Forest Ave. in Oak Park, sold for more than $100 million.
Two years later, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office assessed the building’s market value at around $90 million. Kaegi’s assessment would have translated into roughly $8 million in property taxes due on the Vantage property for the 2020 tax year.
But in Illinois, property owners not satisfied with assessments have three levels of appeal: the township or county assessor level, the Illinois Board of Review level and the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board or Circuit Court appeals.
After appealing the assessor’s figure with the Cook County Board of Review (BOR), Vantage’s market value was assessed at $48.5 million and the building’s 2020 tax bill was cut by 40 percent, to $4.9 million.
“We don’t understand how they’re arriving at their decisions,” said Assessor Kaegi, referencing the BOR. “I feel like Oak Parkers need an explanation.”
Kaegi, himself an Oak Parker, said the BOR’s massive assessment reduction is consistent with what’s happened across Cook County this year, as many residential property owners have seen their tax bills skyrocket while the largest commercial property tax owners have experienced substantial tax relief.
“Assessments determine the share of property tax burden,” Kaegi said. “It’s all about how much the average residential homeowner is footing the burden versus commercial and non-residential properties footing the burden.
“When we came into this office, the data showed commercial assessments in Cook County, on average, were about 40 percent under-assessed. The mission of our administration has been to close that gap and make residential assessments less regressive.”
But Kaegi said the BOR’s assessments have undermined much of that mission. For instance, the BOR’s 40 percent assessment reduction on the Vantage property translates into an extra $50 to $75 in property taxes for a homeowner living in a $500,000 house in the village, Kaegi said.
In Oak Park, the median residential property tax for the 2020 tax year was $10,422, an increase of $246 over the 2019 median, according to a report by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.
The assessor’s office has created an online data dashboard that allows residents to see the difference between residential and commercial tax assessments, along with the degree to which the county assessor’s and the BOR’s assessments diverge.
In 2019, the BOR assessed total non-residential property in Oak Park at $117 million and total residential property in Oak Park at $528 million.
The next year, the county assessor’s total non-residential assessment was $203.4 million while the BOR’s total non-residential assessment for that year was adjusted to $147.7 million, a decrease of 27 percent.
The assessor’s total residential assessment for the 2020 tax year was $554.8 million, which the BOR adjusted to $543 million, just a 2 percent decrease.
According to the assessor’s dashboard, the BOR’s assessment lowered the market value of four out of the five highest valued properties in the village by between 40 percent and 51 percent, virtually halving those property tax bills.
Attempts to contact representatives with the BOR for comment on the appeals process were unsuccessful.
During last week’s phone interview, Kaegi said he was attending a conference in Chicago of the International Association of Assessing Officers. Kaegi said when he talks to his colleagues from around the state and country about Cook County’s assessment process, they’re often stunned.
“We are a grotesque anomaly in the United States in several ways,” Kaegi said.
Kaegi said Cook County sticks out in the number of appeals, the multiple levels of appeals and the lack of transparency in the data collection.
“The last time we reassessed Chicago, we had about 500,000 appeals,” Kaegi said. “In Downstate Illinois, less than 10 percent of parcels appeal. The people who can work that system reduce their share of the property tax burden at the expense of everyone else who end up making up the difference. So, you disadvantage people who don’t speak English or who can’t afford lawyers.”
Kaegi added that Cook County “is one of the few major urban centers in the U.S. that doesn’t have basic powers to collect data.”
The result is that powerful commercial property owners often game the system by throwing the county’s numbers into question based on dubious and murky arguments during the BOR appeals process.
Without automatic and accurate income and expense data provided to the county by commercial property owners, Kaegi said the BOR’s unpredictable assessment process, one dominated by powerful law firms, will continue to throw a hatchet into his reform efforts.
Kaegi said he’s hopeful that the data bill he’s been pushing in Springfield for the last few years will finally get passed now that Emanuel “Chris” Welch, whose district includes parts of River Forest, is Illinois House Speaker.
The assessor said prior attempts to pass the bill in a state dominated by a Democratic supermajority were stymied under former Speaker Michael Madigan — the founding partner of a law firm that files property tax appeals.