Will political infighting delay your Cook County property tax assessment appeals?

A growing annual caseload and a massive backlog of property tax assessment appeals were the reasons the Cook County Board of Review gave in asking for 11 new staff members.

However, all but one of the new hires will be assigned to the two Democrats on the three-person board, leaving Republican Commissioner Dan Patlak of Wheeling — who represents much of the Cook County suburbs — complaining he'll remain short-handed while his colleagues create “patronage armies.”

A commissioner on the Cook County Board, which authorized the new hires with combined annual salaries of about $745,000, said there's nothing the county board can do about how the employees are distributed.

For taxpayers, Patlak believes the uneven staffing could slow down appeals, lead to late distribution of property tax bills and payments, and even delay when government agencies receive tax revenue.

“Clearly, it's absolutely contrary to what the state legislature had in mind when they created the board of review,” Patlak argued. “It's not to have two members who have an advantage in resources over the third.”

Democratic Commissioner Michael Cabonargi said he's had the smallest staff recently and it hasn't hindered the Board of Review's operations.

“It's kind of hypocritical,” Cabonargi said. “We're not taking any resources away from Commissioner Patlak.”

With the new hires, Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. will be authorized for 32 staff members, Cabonargi for 26 and Patlak for 24. There are roughly 35 shared employees of the Board of Review as well. Rogers did not return calls seeking comment.

The Board of Review considers appeals from Cook County taxpayers who believe their property assessments are incorrect. All three commissioners eventually vote on any assessment change after an analyst from each of their staffs researches the appeal.

As an independently elected body, the board itself determines how the staff is divided.

The Cook County Board authorized the 11 new positions in this year's budget after the Board of Review began charging law firms for customized reports on appeal outcomes. The fee to those firms ranges from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on how many clients the firms are representing before the board. Money from the fees — estimated at more than $1.1 million this year — is intended to cover the cost of the new hires.

Annual salaries for the new analysts will range from $60,000 to $90,000 depending on experience, but they are budgeted to average about $68,000 each.

Democratic Cook County Board Commissioner Larry Suffredin sponsored the budget amendment authorizing the positions. He said the county board can vote only on funding the jobs, not how they're distributed to the commissioners.

“We tried to tell the chief judge last year how to staff his office and that got us into a lawsuit,” Suffredin said. “I would urge all three (Board of Review) commissioners to work together and be the adults I know they are.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a Democrat running for Chicago mayor, would not comment.

Cabonargi said he and Rogers need bigger staffs because the districts they represent need more outreach to let property owners know about the appeal process. Cabonargi's district is Chicago's North Side and several North Shore suburbs. Rogers' district is Chicago's South Side. The West Side is split between them.

Cabonargi said research shows most of Patlak's constituents already appeal their assessments regularly.

Additionally, Cabonargi said he and Rogers have assigned staff for the past three summers to whittle away at a four-year backlog of Cook County cases at the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board, the next line of appeal for taxpayers who are unsuccessful at the county Board of Review.

“Dan (Patlak) only sent his staff to help in the last year,” Cabonargi said.

Katherine Patti, the deputy chief administrative law judge at the state appeal board, said the “summer project” has been largely staffed by Cabonargi and Rogers employees until last summer, when Patlak sent one employee.

Patlak said he sent two workers.

Patlak said the county board also authorized five more analyst positions this year specifically to handle the PTAB backlog. The first 11 positions are intended to bolster the existing staff, he said.

Several suburban leaders have sent letters to the county board in support of Patlak's efforts to distribute the new staff members more evenly.

“My biggest concern is not only the fairness of the distribution of labor but that the work gets done on time,” said Elk Grove Township Assessor Connie Carosielli. “If a taxpayer can't expect equitable distribution of staff looking at their appeal, why would they expect an equitable examination of that appeal?”

None of the 11 positions have been filled. Cabonargi said he's interviewed candidates but doesn't have a timeline for their hiring. He said the extra help is necessary.

“Right now we've got people working mandatory overtime, working 50 hour work weeks,” Cabonargi said.

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