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Apr
25

Onerous Property Tax Requirements Proposed

True to campaign promises, the new Cook County assessor has proposed sweeping legislation that borrows the most burdensome tax requirements and penalties from jurisdictions across the country. But will this enhance transparency or simply saddle taxpayers with inaccurate assessments and the need for costly appeals?

The 2018 race for Cook County Assessor ended in Fritz Kaegi beating out incumbent and long-time political powerhouse Joseph Berrios. Kaegi's campaign promises targeted the "insider" game of property tax appeals and proposed to bring fairness and transparency to the Illinois property tax appeal system.

The proposed requirements would only be imposed on commercial or income-producing properties worth more than $400,000, or residential properties with seven or more units worth more than $1 million. Residential properties with six units or less, as well as mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with six or fewer apartment units and less than 20,000 square feet of commercial area, are exempt from reporting income data.

In Cook County, these commercial properties will be required to submit income and expense data to the assessor prior to July 1 each year, and attest to the truthfulness of such information. Counties outside of Cook County may adopt the same requirement.

Property owners who fail to file the required information may receive a notice from the assessor demanding its submittal. If the taxpayer fails to report the income pursuant to the notice, the taxpayer will be fined 2 percent of the previous year's total tax bill. If the taxpayer still does not submit evidence within 120 days of the original notice, the proposal adds a second penalty of 2.5 percent of the prior year's tax bill.

As if these financial penalties were not enough, the taxpayer who fails to provide the information within 120 days is precluded from appealing the subject property's tax assessment. Furthermore, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is granted the right to subpoena the income and expense data from the tax payer on an annual basis.

None of the legislation eliminates the right to appeal to the Board of Review, however.

So, will the proposed statute bring fairness and transparency to the appeal process? No.

Round hole, square peg

The requirement to file income and expense data is not revolutionary. In many cases, taxpayers file appeals based directly on the property's income data rather than incur appraisal expenses. On the other hand, income-producing properties that commission an appraisal will provide the income and expense data to the appraiser in order to explain any differences between the actual rents in the subject property and the market rents used to calculate the assessment. Thus, the new rules will not necessarily bring more transparency to the values of multimillion-dollar commercial properties.

For the institutional investor, the greatest concern about the proposal is the validity and application of the collected income and expense data. As the old saying goes "garbage in, garbage out."

The assessor claims that the collection and aggregation of data directly from taxpayers will help identify the true rental market value of specific real estate. The concern is that taxpayers will be reporting a variety of unadjusted rents rather than market rates. Market rates take into account the differences between gross, modified and triple net leases, as well as tenant improvements, concessions, length of lease, sale-leasebacks and a host of other factors. Without adjustment to market rates, the data will be incorrect and the assessments will be inflated. This will produce a higher rate of appeal on an annual basis and impose greater appeal burdens on all involved.

Furthermore, the new requirements will bring the greatest harm to smaller commercial investors who may not be filing property tax appeals at all. Many of these are mom-and-pop organizations that keep handwritten ledgers and have market values between $400,000 and $1 million. The annual reporting requirement and respective penalties would be financially burdensome to taxpayers in this group, many of whom never undertook the expense of filing an appeal. Now those taxpayers may be open to valuation increases on an annual basis and have to spend money on appraisals and attorney representation.

And transparency?

The proposed statue prohibits "non-personal income and expense data" the assessor collects from being accessed through Freedom of Information Act searches. Does this indicate that the data sets the assessor produces cannot be analyzed by the taxpayer for accuracy? Where is the fairness and transparency in that?

If the statute passes, the hurdle for Illinois taxpayers will be to clearly identify the difference between market rents and actual rents for each of their properties, which may result in extremely burdensome requirements and penalties. The mandated steps may require intricate analysis and could result in property owners expending time and money responding to annual notices for documentation, fines for noncompliance, and the inability to challenge illegal assessments as a right.

Much of the income-and-expense statements, rent rolls and other data the assessor seeks are already available in documentation currently being submitted in support of annual appeals. Based upon this readily available data, the assessor should be able to generate guidelines that reflect current rental rates, occupancy levels and capitalization rates.

If Cook County taxes need reform, this is not the reform.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, which has offices in Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA and Chicago. IL and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
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Apr
27

How Cook County Takes the Benefit Out of Taxpayer Incentives

The Cook County Board of Commissioners may have dealt manufacturing districts in South and Southwest Cook County, Illinois, their final blow.

The use of property tax incentives has increased over the past several decades and has been a vital economic development tool in this manufacturing belt. The industrial corridor suffered a one-two punch during the Great Recession and is still hanging onto the ropes, trying to recover while the rest of Cook County thrives.

Cook County property tax incentives reduce assessed values used to determine a property's tax bill. Assessors normally set taxable value at 25 percent of a property's market value, while assessing real estate qualifying for the incentive at 10 percent of market value. This yields a taxable value 60 percent lower than the asset would carry under the standard calculation.

The recession gutted Cook County's manufacturing belt. Numerous manufacturing companies either closed their doors for good or relocated to nearby Indiana, recruited with the promise of a feather-weight tax burden. The migration left a glut of vacant facilities in its wake, driving market values and the assessment base into a downward spiral.

As the market and occupancy rates plummeted, local tax rates spiked, exceeding 35 percent in some suburban municipalities. Without reinvestment in their communities, these municipalities could never recover, and the tax rate would not recede. The most valuable economic development tool available to these municipalities was the property tax incentive.

Crossed purposes

Over the past several years, the Cook County Board of Commissioners has suffocated the utility of the incentive program by imposing wage and other labor requirements on owners and operators of incentivized real estate. Most recently in March, the Commissioners imposed a "prevailing wage requirement," which mandates that any property that receives an incentive after September of this year must" pay all laborers ,workers and mechanics engaged in construction work not less than the prevailing wage paid for public works."

The new rule is expected to increase construction costs by 30 percent. Additionally, the new ordinance mandates participation in federally approved apprenticeship programs. Moreover, the change adds burdensome administrative costs to the incentive holder, which must keep detailed records of employee wages, contractor wages and other minutia. They must make quarterly reports to municipal agencies, or else live under the threat of having the incentive taken away.

But why would the Cook County Board of Commissioners impose mandates that effectively eliminate any incentive benefit? The decision is even more remarkable given the strong opposition it drew from the affected communities. Thirty mayors from the south and south western suburban municipalities testified in front of the county commissioners against the most recent ordinance. Local news media, which typically refrains from dive deeps into nuanced economic development issues, came out against the proposed ordinance.

Cook County elections were March 20. Commissioners in thriving districts were not going to risk their re-election prospects on an issue that didn't affect their constituents. So, the ordinance passed.

Act now

For entities looking to take advantage of the incentive program in Cook County, the most important task is to file the incentive application with the municipality and/or Cook County Assessor's Office prior to Sept.1. Any taxpayer who is attempting to sell or lease their property should apply for an incentive now instead of waiting for a prospective tenant or buyer. If the application is filed prior to Sept. 1, the prevailing wage mandate will not apply to any construction.

It is critical to note that the expansion of a facility will also trigger the prevailing-wage mandate for the additional square footage, even if the property already has an incentive. The property owner must apply for an additional incentive for the new space. Thus, any property owner considering such an expansion should make the required filing before Sept.1.

Most property owners in manufacturing districts that rely heavily on incentives for economic development only protest tax assessments when the property is reassessed. They would be wise to appeal their taxes every year, however.

The unpredictability of the incentive program itself is enough to drive up cap rates by two basis points, which will lower market values across the board. That creates the opportunity to achieve a lower assessment on appeal. The ability to quantify these issues is critical in an appeal, and failure to do so further diminishes the value of the real estate.

Most likely, due to the unnecessary restrictions imposed on the current incentive programs, the entire existing incentive program for Cook County may be scrapped. It is unfair that certain municipalities struggling with economic development are now political carnage. Any new incentive program should put the authority in the local municipalities' hands, rather than leave it under the political machinations of the rest of Cook County.

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