Column

Olson: You, too, can have an 'uninhabitable' home

Imagine being so rich that you buy a mansion next door to your mansion, just to have a place to hang out.

Then imagine that you have a team of lawyers and assistants who can help gin up a scheme to have the taxes reduced on your new hangout by more than $330,000 over five years.

According to a recent report from the Cook County inspector general, a few years after the Pritzkers bought a mansion next door to their home on Chicago’s Gold Coast, J.B. Pritzker’s wife, M.K. Pritzker, hired a contractor to pull out the toilets and cap the lines.

Then two people told the Cook County assessor in sworn affidavits that the building had no working plumbing and had been uninhabitable for years. The result was a big assessment reduction and retroactive tax rebates.

Had Pritzker, a multibillionaire, not become the Democratic candidate for governor, Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard probably wouldn’t have investigated, and no one would be the wiser.

This week, Pritzker said he’d repay the $330,000 in tax breaks. He also said the property tax system is flawed and he was following the rules. Blanchard’s report called what happened a “scheme to defraud,” which is always against the rules.

Illinois’ property tax system certainly has flaws, chief among them that it charges people a ridiculous amount of money to keep their homes, regardless of their ability to pay. It’s also pretty annoying that billionaires, corporate interests and connected people can game the system for their benefit – and to everyone else’s detriment.

New property assessments are published in today’s Daily Chronicle, and DeKalb County property owners have until Nov. 5 to appeal their assessments. Most of us don’t have the luxury of owning the mansion next door, and would need years to earn the $330,000 Pritzker has said he’ll repay to Cook County by the end of the week.

Just because you don’t have access to a team of lawyers, personal assistants and contractors doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a break, however. Here’s a few DIY ideas for having your home declared uninhabitable:

1. Are you into Halloween? Make your house terrifying with effects and decorations such as the one in West Fargo, North Dakota, that led a neighbor to call the police. Then take the assessor on a terrifying tour that will prove your haunted house is uninhabitable.

2. Have a friend or relative – or personal assistant, if you have one – swear that the house is crawling with stink bugs, termites, some real nasty-looking wasps, probably a couple of tarantulas. Too dangerous for an assessor to go in and check, so they’ll have to take your word for it that nobody can live in there.

3. Remove all the toilets from the house. Move to a lower-tax state. Pledge to return only when property taxes subside to a level where you can afford to live in the house again.

Actually, don’t do any of this because it would be dishonest, or, as Blanchard’s report deemed the toilet removal, “a scheme to defraud.”

The best way to combat high property taxes is to push for reforms that reduce our state’s over-reliance on a regressive property tax system. Whether that’s through changes to the income tax, cutting state spending, or some combination of these and other methods, is up to voters to decide.

We’ll also have to decide whether we want a governor linked to what a government investigator calls a fraud – in a report that has been forwarded to Cook County prosecutors – before he even takes office.

We’ve seen gubernatorial candidates linked to scandal before in Illinois. It hasn’t ended well.

Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle, a Shaw Media publication. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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