Front lawns crowded with campaign yard signs and TV commercial breaks flooded with attack ads can only mean one thing: primary elections are around the corner. For Cook County voters, that means a hefty ballot that includes the sheriff, dozens of judges, the most expensive governor’s race in Illinois history, and more.
Often overlooked is the race for Cook County Board of Review. I don’t mean the more high-profile Board of Commissioners, though all 17 seats for that are up for election, too. I’m talking about the county’s three-member property tax appeals board. All three seats are up for election this year, but unless you own a few properties on Michigan Avenue, you probably didn’t know that.
The Board of Review is easily one of the least understood bodies of government in Cook County. Every year, homeowners, landlords, and business owners receive an assessment, or estimated value, of their property from the Cook County Assessor’s office that ultimately determines their property tax bill. If you’re mad about paying higher property taxes because your assessment increased, the Board is the independent body you can appeal to.
Every county in the state has a property tax appeals board, usually appointed by the assessor or county board. In Cook County, board members are elected by the public. Commissioners are elected from three separate districts equal in population. They serve four-year terms while alternating a two-year term. Unlike other jurisdictions, Cook County commissioners are not required to hold a real estate law license.
Cook County homeowners can file an online appeal at the Board’s website. Unless you’re a commercial property owner, you don’t need an attorney to do so. All three commissioners review each appeal, and if two out of the three agree that a reduction is warranted, then the property assessment is lowered.
If a property owner is unhappy with the Board’s decision, they can also file an appeal with the state’s property tax appeal board or file a lawsuit through the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The problem is that not a lot of homeowners know they can appeal their property taxes.
Take Irma Morales for example. She’s been a homeowner in Little Village for more than 20 years. When the county reassessed property values last year, she says homeowners in her neighborhood were the last to find out that they could appeal their property taxes with the assessor and she didn’t know about the independent appeal process through the Board of Review.
“I couldn’t even figure out how to fill out the forms,” said Morales, who primarily speaks Spanish.
Únete la Villita, a community organization Morales cofounded, staged a protest along with other community groups outside the assessor’s office last summer to express concerns over high property taxes that they feared would displace small business owners and longtime residents.
Moises Moreno, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, told the Reader he and his wife could no longer afford to live in Pilsen, due in part to high property taxes. “We’re trying not to get taxed out of the city,” he said. “I know there are families, homeowners, and small business owners whose assessments have gone up astronomically and have to decide between selling their house or risk losing it.”
Moreno says Pilsen Alliance helps homeowners appeal their taxes through the assessor’s office, but that they can only do so much. Like Morales, he was unfamiliar with the Board of Review. He says the appeal process is a Band-Aid solution to unfair property assessments that benefit real estate developers at the expense of longtime residents.
“I think what folks are really asking for is reform at the state level,” he said.
Some people are more familiar with the Board of Review than others. Take Alderperson Ed Burke (14th Ward), who’s currently facing federal corruption charges. Before the FBI raided his office in 2019, he was a partner at a law firm specializing in property tax appeals. His clients included big corporations such as AT&T, Walgreens, and ComEd.
According to a 2017 investigation by the Tribune and ProPublica, Burke successfully knocked $865 million off of his clients’ property tax bills between 2011 and 2016. When property taxes—the main source of revenue for schools, parks, and police—are reduced for one taxpayer, another, like Morales, has to pick up the tab.
For decades, former Illinois House of Representatives speaker Michael Madigan was similarly banking on property tax appeals. His law firm, Madigan and Getzendanner, has dominated the property tax appeals game for years. Madigan is still a partner at the firm and is currently the subject of a federal investigation into an alleged bribery scheme involving ComEd.
Southwest-side neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village are in the district represented by Board of Review commissioner Michael Cabonargi. He admits it’s a challenge to ensure everyone in the county has access to an appeal process that is independent of the assessor’s office.
According to data provided by the Board of Review, homeowners on the south and west sides are less likely to appeal their property taxes than homeowners on the north and northwest sides. Cabonargi says language and Internet access can be barriers for homeowners trying to appeal, adding that his office does extensive outreach to areas in his district.
Last year, the Illinois General Assembly redrew the district boundaries for the Cook County Board of Review (it’s required to do so every ten years), meaning all current board members are up for reelection. In an effort to preserve minority representation on the board, the first district boundaries were redrawn to include predominantly Latinx Chicago wards and suburbs such as Cicero, Berwyn, and Hanover Park.
Shortly after the new map was introduced, 12th Ward alderperson George Cardenas announced he was running for the Board of Review to unseat the first district incumbent Tammy Wendt. The new boundaries for the first district would include Little Village, Brighton Park, McKinley Park—neighborhoods Cardenas has represented as alderperson for 19 years.
But Irma Morales and Moises Moreno say the Board of Review is just a power grab for Cardenas.
“Look at his record,” Moreno says. “Look at the donations he’s taking. Is he friendly with developers? Because developers are the ones who don’t want the change we’re asking for, which is a fair property tax assessment.”
Since 2003, Cardenas has accepted donations from dozens of real estate developers. Among his biggest donors are Pacific Star Capital CEO Aria Mehrabi, who has given him $25,000, and Bertco Development, which has donated $16,000.
Cardenas did not respond to our request for comment.
The Illinois primary elections are on June 28, 2022. The general election will be held on November 8. Election information can be found on the Cook County Clerk’s website.
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