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Come Out and Pay

In its first year of paying property taxes, the Park District overpaid by more than $400,000.

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It's bad enough that the Park District—which is funded by property tax revenues—agreed to a costly and unprecedented deal to pay property taxes on its central office. But it gets worse: as it turns out, the district paid even more than it said it would.

The strange tale goes something like this: Property tax bills are paid in two installments. The bill for the first installment, which typically comes in February, covers the first half of the previous year; the second bill, which usually comes in August, covers the second half of the previous tax year. So property owners are paying their 2007 tax bills this year.

The Park District's offices in the Time-Life building were tax-exempt until Golub & Company, a commercial realtor, bought the high-rise from the nonprofit Teachers' Retirement System in June 2006. That's when the district became responsible for 22 percent of the building's property taxes. In other words, the Park District should have been responsible for 22 percent of the taxes covering the second half of 2006.

Instead it paid more than twice that much.

Since the 2006 second-installment bill was $1,214,319 for the whole building, the Park District should have owed around $267,000 when the tax bill was sent out last fall. Superintendent Tim Mitchell says it paid $679,000, or 56 percent.

That means the district overpaid by about $412,000. To put it in perspective, that's maybe half the cost of a new soccer field the Park District says it's too broke to build. (Instead, it's getting the funds from the private Latin School in exchange for exclusive use of the field during prime-time hours in the spring and fall seasons.)

Why did the district pay so much? When I pointed out the overpayment, Mitchell said the district's property tax bill was based on the landlord's estimate and that he'll ask for a refund once his bean counters get around to figuring out how much they went over.

That shouldn't take long. With a little help from the tax experts at the county assessor's office and the Board of Appeals, I ran the numbers in about five minutes.

The county's tax experts tell me most property tax lawyers—like alderman Ed Burke and house speaker Michael Madigan—get paid about 25 percent of whatever they save their clients. "You should ask Mitchell for about 100 grand," says a county tax expert. "It's what Burke and Madigan would get."

Well, if it's good enough for Burke and Madigan, it's good enough for me. I won't even spend the money on myself—I'll let the Park District put it toward something useful, like an indoor track. —Ben Joravsky

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