The three members of the DuPage County Board of Review – a little-known government panel that handles property tax appeals from home and business owners – were each given their jobs by Robert Schillerstrom during his 12-year stint as County Board chairman.
Now a lawyer in private practice, Schillerstrom’s income depends on decisions made by those same people – raising conflict-of-interest questions on both sides of the equation, the Better Government Association found.
Schillerstrom left his elected county post in 2010 after an unsuccessful Republican bid for governor. The following year he launched a property tax appeals practice for the Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller LLP, with the practice based in Lisle and focusing, in part, on tax appeals before the Board of Review.
He’s had considerable success in DuPage County, winning nearly all of his cases and securing tax breaks for his clients that in many instances exceeded the countywide average, a BGA analysis found.
Schillerstrom, County Board chairman from 1998 to 2010, says good lawyering, not politics, is behind his success.
“I do it the right way and I’m good at it,” he says.
Board of Review members, two of whom donated money to Schillerstrom’s campaign fund in past years, insist they aren’t showing favoritism.
“He can’t do us any favors – he’s gone,” says BOR member Charles Van Slyke Jr.
“We’re making decisions based on evidence,” says another BOR member, Carl Peterson. “It would be erroneous to think we give him special consideration.”
The third member, Anthony Bonavolonta, says if Schillerstrom were still the County Board chairman, the Board of Review would not be hearing his cases.
But now that Schillerstrom is gone from the county government, “you can’t stop a guy from making a living.”
(Schillerstrom is currently collecting a taxpayer-subsidized pension of more than $110,000 a year, according to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.)
“I treat him like I treat everyone else,” Bonavolonta adds.
Whatever the case, Schillerstrom, 60, is following something of a tradition, frowned upon by good-government groups, in the world of Chicago-area politics.
Powerful political figures such as Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Chicago Ald. Edward Burke (14th) also are attorneys who work on property tax appeals on the side, often in Cook County, despite concerns that political connections can be used to make money and unfairly win appeals, causing others with less clout to shoulder a greater burden.
Over the past year or so Schillerstrom filed appeals on behalf of 15 commercial and residential property owners in DuPage, winning a reduction in all but one of the cases, according to data from the county’s Supervisor of Assessments office.
Even comparing the data several different ways, one thing is certain: Schillerstrom’s clients met or exceeded the average reductions countywide, the BGA analysis found, using records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
On the residential side, the taxable value of his clients’ properties declined by an average of 22.5 percent, versus 15.3 percent for all other homeowners. On the commercial side, his clients’ average reduction was 20.1 percent, versus 19.65 percent for all other owners of commercial, industrial and multifamily properties, according to the analysis.
Overall this meant properties owned by Schillerstrom’s clients saw their taxable value reduced by a total of $3.2 million, collectively saving them more than $220,000 on their real estate taxes. (Schillerstrom’s firm got a cut of the savings, but he refused to say how much. He also said his success rate may have been so high, in part, because he cherry picked winnable cases.)
In DuPage, property owners can appeal their assessments on an annual basis. They are encouraged to first meet with their township assessor’s office, which helps determine how much residential and commercial owners pay in property taxes.
The assessor and the appellant may reach a settlement, which still must be approved by the BOR. Otherwise an owner can file an appeal directly with the BOR.
In 11 of his 15 cases, Schillerstrom and an assessor came to terms and the BOR approved the agreement. In three cases, the board unilaterally reduced the taxable value. In one instance, a client’s taxable value was kept the same.
All three BOR members – Van Slyke, Peterson and Bonavolonta – have been on the board since the late 1990s. Van Slyke was appointed by Schillerstrom, and all three were reappointed more than once by Schillerstrom.
Van Slyke has given Schillerstrom’s political fund $850 over the years while Bonavolonta, the BOR chairman, has donated $1,525, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Although their jobs are part-time, the BOR members are each paid more than $40,000 a year, plus benefits that include a taxpayer-funded pension down the road if they meet certain criteria.
Wheaton resident Frank May says he hired Schillerstrom after the assessor in Milton Township didn’t agree his home’s assessment should be lowered.
Schillerstrom filed an appeal on May’s behalf, convincing the BOR to lower the property’s taxable value by roughly 10 percent – saving May more than $2,000 on his taxes, according to a BGA estimate. May said he didn’t know Schillerstrom personally.
“I hired him because I’d heard good things about him,” he says.
There is no restriction preventing Schillerstrom from doing business through the Board of Review, according to the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at (312) 821-9035 or email@example.com.