A billionaire's burden

A billionaire's burden

J.B. Pritzker, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, felt the sting of high property taxes. He appealed and won.

Even billionaires think property taxes in Illinois are too high.

Over the weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, successfully appealed his property taxes last year — resulting in $230,000 in tax breaks and refunds.

Pritzker and his family live in a three-story, 12,500-square-foot mansion on North Astor Street in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. They bought that home for $14.5 million in 2006. In recent years, the Pritzkers — through their Astor Street LLC — purchased the mansion next door, which is about half the size of the family's home, for $3.7 million.

The Cook County assessor's office valued the smaller mansion at $6.25 million, with a tax bill of $117,087.

But Pritzker's attorney appealed those lofty numbers last year, arguing that the mansion had fallen into disrepair and was "vacant and uninhabitable." In fact, the home had "no functioning bathrooms or kitchen," according to documents filed with the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios — who is also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Berrios' staff agreed, lowering that property's value to under $1.1 million, which cut the tax bill to $19,719 — an 83 percent savings, according to the Sun-Times.

And the savings didn't end there.

Pritzker received partial refunds on taxes paid between 2012 and 2014. Further, the value on the Pritzker's residence was lowered last year from $14.1 million to about $12.1 million, with a property-tax bill of $221,287 — a $43,000 savings.

Not surprisingly, the Republicans pounced.

Former GOP Chairman Pat Brady, holding a press conference Monday in front of the "uninhabitable" million-dollar mansion, said Pritzker was carrying off a "con job." By seeking lower property taxes, he said, Pritzker was taking much-needed money from Chicago Public Schools and social services.

The irony is hard to miss. The miserly billionaire quietly saves on his own taxes while his campaign wants regular working families to pay higher taxes for state government.

Pritzker's defense: He was only doing what 50,000 other Cook County property owners did last year. Further, "the big challenge here," he said, is that property taxes in Illinois are too high.

Many people statewide would agree with that last statement. Illinois is frequently cited as having one of the highest property-tax burdens in the nation. The largest component of Illinois property taxes — roughly half — goes to local school districts.

That Pritzker would defend his own property-tax appeal by pivoting to "property taxes are too high" argument is peculiar. His GOP opponent, Gov. Bruce Rauner, has been saying that for months. In fact, the so-called "grand bargain" that Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno were working on collapsed because Rauner wanted a permanent property-tax freeze instead of a temporary one.

By citing the weight of property taxes, Pritzker has handed the governor a small victory.

"See, even they agree that property taxes are too high," the Rauner camp will be saying. "So why don't the Democrats in the General Assembly get on board with their party's front-runner?"

On top of the tax appeal being a political flub, Pritzker is showing off the sordid state of property-tax appeals in Cook County.

For years, the assessor's office has pumped up the values of commercial real estate in Chicago. The property owners, wanting to pay less, seek out House Speaker Michael Madigan's clout-heavy law firm for help. Madigan's attorneys appeal the cases to the Board of Review — whose members are political appointees — and voila, taxes cut.

If voters in November 2018 want cozy insiders making deals for their friends, Pritzker just might be their man.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on May 18, 2017 at 5:05 pm

The article headline was confusing.  People had to wonder if the "billionaire" was one of the two running to become governor, or the present governor, or the President.  Only billionaires can get elected it seems.  Makes you wonder why a billionaire would want a public office.  Obama may be the last non-billionaire President.  A billionaire with business interests would be the last person that I would vote into office.  However, the majority of American politicians were, or still are, Rich.

Oh, I forgot that Ronnie Reagan was not overly rich.  However, that was due to his being an actor.