Since 1998, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 has spent $1.06 million fighting the tax appeals of commercial property owners, winning back $12.25 million from settled and withdrawn challenges.
The district's attorneys say their success rate is fairly typical in the Northwest suburbs, but because of District 211's large commercial base, particularly in Schaumburg, it takes on a large number of appeals from businesses seeking refunds of more than $100,000.
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District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates said these interventions not only protect the programs and services the school district provides, but help keep the tax burden from shifting too much onto homeowners.
"Clearly there has been a shift in the tax burden," Cates said. "Businesses are seeking relief. We acknowledge that these are difficult times. But we owe it to our families, students and faculty to protect our programs. We believe it is our duty and our responsibility to respond to these."
As the economy continues to recover, businesses throughout the suburbs regularly appeal property assessments to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board in hopes of shoring up their bottom lines. Refunds granted through these appeals costs District 211 an average of about $5 million a year.
For more than 15 years, District 211 officials have made it their policy to intervene in the largest appeals -- those seeking refunds of more than $100,000. The district currently has 262 such cases pending. After legal and appraisal costs, these interventions have resulted in $11.18 million in savings for the district.
Cates said the school district doesn't intend to pick on businesses in particular, but commercial property appeals are much more likely to seek refund amounts that would adversely affect schools.
"The amounts become so big so quickly that (it) can affect our programming," he added.
Louis Apostol, executive director of the Property Tax Appeal Board, said the responsibility of providing fair, objective rulings on both commercial and residential assessment appeals is one his agency takes seriously. He acknowledges that commercial property owners often have the resources to make more thorough and sophisticated arguments than homeowners do.
District 211 is part of a consortium of suburban taxing bodies that pay a single law firm for the cost of interventions in appeal board cases. The consortium includes Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, the village of Hoffman Estates, the Hoffman Estates Park District, the Schaumburg Park District, the Schaumburg Township District Library and Schaumburg Township.
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 has a more informal partnership with District 211, based on the fact they employ the same law firm -- Chicago-based Franczek Radelet Attorneys & Counselors -- for interventions, said Michael Adamczyk, District 15's assistant superintendent for business and auxiliary services.
The village of Schaumburg is not part of the approximately 15-year-old consortium. Schaumburg didn't have a municipal property tax until 2009 and is aiming to eliminate it as soon as possible. Harper College in Palatine doesn't regularly intervene in appeal board cases because its jurisdiction is so large and its share of each property's tax bill so small that it wouldn't be worth it, Harper spokesman Phil Burdick said.
Nevertheless, when even one taxing body prevails in an intervention of a property assessment appeal, all other taxing bodies serving that property also benefit.
Though Hoffman Estates is affected by only about 10 percent of the appeals District 211 intervenes on, the village believes it's right to pay its fair share of the legal fees for those cases, Hoffman Estates Finance Director Rachel Musiala said. When an appeal does arise affects the village Hoffman Estates, it helps that the consortium is already in place and the process of intervening doesn't have to start from scratch, Musiala said.
Though taxing bodies like Schaumburg Township don't collect nearly as high a percentage of each property's tax bill as local school districts, they say it's important be a part of the fight.
"We just want to make sure everyone is paying the fair amount," Schaumburg Township Supervisor Mary Wroblewski said. "Everybody needs to pay their fair share."