By: Marcus Paul
We live in a time where Governor Bruce Rauner runs a campaign attack ad filled with toilets, and every news outlet in Chicago is captivated. Then again, we also live in a time where there’s a celebrity in the Oval Office, so I can’t say that I’m surprised.
“A royal flush of tax avoidance,” a voice in the ad says. As stinky as this ad might be for political discourse and campaign integrity, it forced me to ask three questions.
1. Did JB Pritzker, current Democratic candidate for Governor of Illinois, really do that? 2. How does removing toilets help you pay less in taxes? 3. Is that even legal?
For starters, the answer is yes, yes he really did that. Pritzker bought an old-style mansion for $3 million from retired banker Burton Gordon, who lived there with his wife for 40 years. After refurbishing the outside of the home, the toilets were then disconnected and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to Pritzker’s lawyers.
Good ol’ taxes. Something that almost everybody pays, but almost nobody understands. How can removing toilets allow you to pay less in taxes? I’m sure several people would chuck their toilet in the lawn just to get the IRS to stop calling their cellphone. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Pritzker’s lawyers were able to convince the Cook County Assessment Office, that his mansion was “vacant and inhabitable,” and the Assessor’s Office agreed. On behalf of Cook County, the Assessor’s Office determined that these unlivable conditions decreased the value of the house from $6.25 million the previous year to $1.1 million. Pritzker’s stunt cut the value of his property by $5 million dollars, which allowed him to received $230,000 in property-tax breaks and refund checks.
Exchanging power and influence for cash favors is not a new story in Chicago, sometimes called the most corrupt city in America; still, there’s no evidence of that happening here. But if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then the odds are that the feathered sailor parading around Disney World may, in fact, be a duck.
Finally, is it legal? I find myself asking that question more often than I’d like to when researching the history of politics in this city. Is tax evasion legal? No. Is tax fraud legal? No. Several people are sitting in jail right now for these crimes. But when these crimes involve billionaires with big money or politicians with big influence (or both), suddenly there are so many rolls of red tape that you can’t even tell that the sky is blue anymore.
The Chicago Tribune series called “The Tax Divide” answer these types of questions about the Cook County Assessor’s Office, and the processes that make the property tax system in Cook County “even less fair.” Unless we are aware of the inner workings of a system, it is impossible to improve it.