Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the September 2015 edition of Chicago Lawyer. The full article provides a detailed description of how property tax appeals function in Cook County and the impact of the appeals process. Read the full article here or click here to download a printable version.
By Roy Strom
Gary Smith is not an entertainer or a clown or, for that matter, anybody whose work would seem to have anything to do with squeezing balloons.
But, of course, it does.
Smith is a lawyer, and for the past 30 years he has been appealing Cook County property assessments — perhaps the most fundamental figure in a complex calculation that creates two tax bills a year for each of the county’s 1.8 million parcels of land.
It is a math-heavy, deadline-driven and bottom-line-focused practice.
Just consider: There are 38 townships in Cook County and each has its own deadline for an appeal at the county assessor’s office. Then there are deadlines at the three other levels where appeals take place: The Cook County Board of Review, the Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board (PTAB) and Illinois’ circuit courts. If successful, the attorneys’ work will reduce their clients’ tax bills and the attorney will take a cut of those savings — often 20 percent for single-family homes and a weighted average of 10 percent for commercial properties (the city’s largest buildings pay less in fees while other commercial properties pay more).
In 2014, that resulted in an estimated $94 million paid in legal fees throughout Cook County. In 2012, attorneys earned an estimated $140 million in fees. Several attorneys expect this year to set a record.
Even for attorneys who aren’t part of the action, the practice is worth understanding. The work these lawyers do affects every property tax bill in Cook County.
To explain how that is, Smith must turn to the alluded-to balloon analogy.
“It’s like squeezing a balloon,” Smith said.