Letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor

November 2015

Roy Strom offers much food for thought about the Cook County property tax appeal industry in his September 2015 Chicago Lawyer article, “The Assessment Squeeze.”

Strom focuses on lucrative legal fees enjoyed by lawyers handling differing success rates between residential and commercial appellants and Internet technology for online tax complaint forms. While lawyers are keeping busy with multiple faster tax deadlines, the Cook County Board of Review faces the largest stack of tax appeals in the nation. In this pressure cooker could be a looming train wreck for Cook County taxpayers.

We write to focus on additional reasons why the Cook County Board of Review faces the country’s largest volume of tax appeals, and why this is a problem for Cook County taxpayers.

To be sure, new technology has facilitated high-volume tax appeals. There are, however, other reasons for the record number of tax appeals in Cook County.

First, new attorneys otherwise unable to find jobs in a tight market are signing up tax-battered clients eager to reduce their property taxes. Consumers should be aware, however, that this field is highly specialized — as Strom aptly states, it is “math-heavy and deadline-driven” — and it operates in a coveted industry. Mistakes can and do happen.

Lawyers should be aware that more sophisticated consumers come emotionally charged about their escalating property taxes and demand good communications about the process from their service providers.

Second, tax appeals are actively encouraged by Illinois tax appeal boards, assessing agencies and elected officials. Filing tax appeals pro se through hundreds of packed outreach programs sponsored by township assessors, the Board of Review, aldermen, state representatives and county commissioners is a practice rarely seen in the public tax assessment profession outside Cook County or the State of Illinois.

Taxpayers’ confidence in tax assessment fairness is best achieved through tax information sessions that disclose the data and methodology used to create new market values, explain exemption qualifications and taxpayer waiver responsibilities for automatic applied exemptions.

Third, and perhaps the most important reason why the volume of tax appeals is high, is that tax assessments are poorly understood and are unfair. Cook County taxpayers face unprecedented, historical increases in tax rates. Moreover, the application of a single state tax multiplier on Cook County alone, coupled with the county’s extreme variations between the lowest tax rates and the highest tax rates, is arbitrary and unjustified.

This phenomenon is particularly acute in Cook County where the lowest tax rate is 6.3 percent in Lyons Township and the highest tax rate is 38.4 percent in Bloom Township. No assessment district in the country has a property tax rate variation of more than 600 percent — much less 100 percent.

The application of a tax rate that increases 5 to 10 percent especially in a non-reassessment year or tax rate increases in consecutive tax years fuel taxpayers’ concerns that they have lost control over ever-escalating property tax bills — even when their market values are spot on.

With such forces in play, the increasing volume of tax appeals takes a heavy toll on the public administration of a just and fair property tax. County assessors and tax appeal board staff face fewer resources, a mountain of tax appeals and struggle under faster, stressful deadlines.

When tax appeal boards are overwhelmed with weak or frivolous appeals, both taxpayers and tax administrators lose. Weak tax appeals can be processed when taxpayers pay up-front filing fees to ensure a tax filing, in spite of poor evidence. The best examination of tax assessment fairness ask questions like whether tax exemptions, land unit values, classifications, property record card calculations and property conditions accurate and fair.

Frivolous appeals clog the system, rulings are delayed, poor decisions are issued and some tax documents lost in a sea of paperwork. For evidence that the system is broken, one need look no further than the Illinois State Property Tax Appeal Board where appeals take an average of four years to adjudicate. This bottleneck of tax appeals at the highest state administrative appeal board has served to force more tax appeals into the circuit court where adjudication is in a “quick” 18 months versus 48 months.

Some relief may be in sight. The Cook County Board of Review launched a state of the art Digital Appeals Processing System (DAPS) for the 2015 tax season. For the first time, taxpayers and practitioners are able to upload evidence electronically. DAPS will revolutionize appeal management efficiencies, eliminate paper waste and storage space and creating significant cost savings.

The DAPS system makes it easier to file appeals for individual taxpayers, but much more difficult and labor intensive for practitioners with high volumes of tax appeals. DAPS may have the unintended result of reducing frivolous tax appeals produced by bulk tax filings. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Paula Raila, President, Raila and Associates, and Andrea Raila, Senior Tax Analyst, Raila and Associates & Former Cook County Board of Review case decision maker