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A tale of two tax bills

How our current property tax system affects the greedy and the needy

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The Ricketts siblings, from left: Pete, Tom, Laura, and Todd - CHICAGO CUBS BASEBALL CLUB LLC/STEPHEN GREEN
  • CHICAGO CUBS BASEBALL CLUB LLC/STEPHEN GREEN
  • The Ricketts siblings, from left: Pete, Tom, Laura, and Todd

The lesson for today is about taxes—property taxes, to be exact.

Consider this a helpful primer for Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she figures out which taxes to raise to close the city's gaping $838 million budget gap.

Spoiler alert!: Use discretion when raising property taxes, Madam Mayor, because people hate paying them, though not always for the same reasons.

Some people hate them because they're inherently greedy people and want to keep all of their money for themselves.

Others are more willing to share for the common good, but they're too broke to keep pace with the taxman—or tax person's—ever-increasing demands.

As an example of the first type, consider Todd Ricketts of the fabulously wealthy Cubs-owning Ricketts clan. As an example of the other, consider my neighbor I'll call Randy, a retiree on a fixed income.

Before we delve into our case studies, a thing or two about property taxes . . .

Basically, your property tax bill is determined by the assessed value of your property multiplied by the tax rate.

The tax rate is the same for all property owners. So the major variable is assessment. The more your property is assessed for, the more you pay in property taxes.

Cook County assessor Fritz Kaegi determines your assessment based on a computer calculation of sales of similar properties in your neighborhood.

If Kaegi says your property is worth $100,000 and the tax rate is 10 percent, you would pay $10,000 in property taxes.

See, that wasn't hard! You too can be a property tax expert.

One more time—the big thing to remember is the lower your assessment, the less you pay in property taxes. And that brings us to Todd Ricketts.

In 2010, Ricketts and his wife tore down their relatively modest home in Wilmette and replaced it with a bigger one. For the sake of this story, we'll call those houses Baby Huey and Big Daddy.

Obviously, Ricketts's assessment should have increased, because Big Daddy is worth more than Baby Huey. Especially since Big Daddy's a "5,000-square-foot North Shore home nestled on a meticulously landscape lot complete with a Japanese-style garden," as the Tribune put it.

However, Ricketts neglected to tell the then-assessor, Joseph Berrios, he'd replaced Baby Huey with Big Daddy. As far as the assessor's office knew, Ricketts was still living in Baby Huey. Thus, the assessment on his home was lower than it would have been.

If you want to take it to the next level, Ricketts's neighbors in Wilmette had to pay more in property taxes to make up for the fact that Ricketts was paying less than he should have been.

Not trying to cause trouble in paradise—just saying.

By the way, I know all of this thanks to an excellent series of articles by Hal Dardick, ace reporter for the Chicago Tribune who's definitely not getting invited to the owner's box at Wrigley Field anytime soon.

As a result of Dardick's articles, the county's launched an investigation to determine whether Ricketts was being intentionally misleading. Or whether it was all just an innocent oversight, as Ricketts sees it.

In the meantime, Ricketts has paid $60,000 in back taxes. And from here on out, he'll have to pay taxes on Big Daddy, not Baby Huey.

At this point, I think everyone else in Wilmette should treat Hal Dardick to lunch—I mean, his stories have sort of lowered your tax bills, if you think about it.

I should point out that, among other things, Todd Ricketts is the finance chairman of the Trump Victory Committee, which, as the name suggests, is the fund-raising arm of President Trump's reelection campaign. Man, I think they should raise his taxes just for that.

For the sake of fairness, I must point out that well-to-do Democrats have also been known to play games with property taxes.

A couple of years ago, Governor Pritzker got into trouble when the story broke he had removed the toilets from his Gold Coast mansion to get a lower assessment.

In fairness to Pritzker, I should point out that his opponent—Governor Rauner—had his own tax-beating dodge. He claimed a homeowner's exemption on two properties, even though the rule says you can only claim it for one.

So when it comes to rich guys dodging the taxman—it's Republicans two, Democrats one.

This brings me to Randy, my lovely neighbor on the fixed income.

Since 1993, she's lived in a humble single-family home in North Center. A year ago, she got an assessment notice from the county and realized her annual property tax bill was likely to double, rising from about $8,700 to more than $16,000.

As a retiree on a fixed income, she couldn't just write out a big-time check like Ricketts did.

She appealed to the county assessor, asking for a lower assessment. But the assessor turned her down. So she went to seminars, and talked to experts and eventually she discovered that the county has an exemption for longtime homeowners who make less than $65,000 a year.

Plus, there's a rebate of at least several hundred dollars for homeowners over the age of 65. Like the senior citizen discount at the Evanston movie theater, it's just one of the benefits of geezerhood. Man, if I knew getting old was so much fun, I'd have done it years ago!

The good news is that Randy wound up only having to pay roughly $10,000 in property taxes. That means she gets to stay in her home and won't have to sell it.

And it means Mayor Lightfoot will have to look elsewhere for the rest of Randy's $6,000 or so tax bill to fill that $838 million budget gap.

Here's the larger lesson: No more hikes in property taxes, Madam Mayor—unless you can figure a way to limit them to the superrich.

The time has come to think of more progressive forms of taxes so the city can pay its bills and meets its obligations without making residents like Randy sell their homes.

Like, a head tax. Or a commuter tax. Or a city income tax. Or a LaSalle Street tax. Or a special tax on Cubs owners who raise money for Trump.

Otherwise, the only people who will be able to afford to live in Chicago will be rich guys like Todd Ricketts.   v

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