The Burke case and the need for property tax reform in Illinois

  • Tim Schneider

    Tim Schneider

  • Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, 75, walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago. The fallout is continuing for the longtime Chicago City Council member charged with trying to shake down a fast-food chain.

    Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, 75, walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago. The fallout is continuing for the longtime Chicago City Council member charged with trying to shake down a fast-food chain.

By Tim Schneider
Guest columnist

Ever since I was a young boy, I have remembered my father waiting for that fateful day when we would receive our new Cook County property tax assessment for our small business. Would it be this year that Cook County property taxes would put us out of business, or if we were lucky, what would we pay our property tax attorney to appeal our taxes to a reasonable level that would keep us in business?

You see, in Cook County, property taxes are a racket. Here's how it works: First, the county assessor raises your assessment to an artificially inflated value, sometimes 30 percent to 50 percent. Slapped with higher assessments, and therefore higher tax burdens, businesses are swarmed by property tax attorneys, "lawyers" with names like Madigan and Burke -- guys who influence public policy, but also run law firms on the side.

Most businesses get the joke and they hire these "lawyers" on a contingency basis to "appeal" the taxes before a board controlled by -- you guessed it - more Democratic functionaries put into those jobs by the Burkes and the Madigans.

What happens next? Voila! The ridiculous unwarranted assessment is moderated, taxes go up but not as much as feared, the politician "lawyer" takes a cut, typically a high percentage of the first year's tax savings.

Sadly, and to the contrary, the shakedown racket has only expanded over the years. In the past 10 years, appeals at the Cook County Board of Review have increased by 82 percent, with nearly 65 percent getting a tax reduction. Two-thirds of the time, the assessor's work is found to be wrong and rolled back. And every three years, the assessor makes the same mistakes again -- and the corrupt cycle starts again.

What would happen to you if two-thirds of your work was wrong? But of course being wrong is the point -- it's the "mistake" you pay the politician/lawyer to "correct" -- no "mistake", no need for lawyers.

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Nowhere else is the property tax system so corrupt and unethical. The recent indictment of property tax attorney and Chicago Alderman Ed Burke for extortion of a Burger King franchise in his ward is simply the tip of an enormous iceberg. The public has known for years that the entire property tax system is fundamentally broken, yet no reforms have been enacted by our elected officials to correct it.

Either we demand a fairer system of property taxation in Cook County, and elected officials who actually look out for their constituents, or we are doomed to lose even more residents to the Republican-run, taxpayer-friendly states of Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and Florida.

Don't let this moment pass with a cynical acceptance of Chicago's corrupt culture. We must reform our property tax system and end conflicts of interest. We can no longer allow the very people who write public policy to profit from it.

Legislators and policymakers -- the Ed Burkes and Mike Madigans of Illinois -- should be prohibited from performing property tax appeal legal work as long as they are elected officials. It is impossible for them to perform the public work the people entrusted them to do without considering the profitability and interests of their own private law firms. They should be free to choose one or the other, but not both.


Recent events present an opportunity for great change and a chance to enact meaningful reform. We should not let this opportunity pass.

Let's work together -- Republicans, Democrats, people of all political stripes -- to enact reforms that ensure due process in tax appeals, fair and equitable taxation, particularly in low-income, minority communities and a system of government that's clear, transparent, and accountable to taxpayers.

Tim Schneider, of Bartlett, is chairman of the Illinois Republican Party and a former Cook County Board commissioner.

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