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Donald Trump’s multi-million dollar Chicago tax break

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CHICAGO -- As Chicago considers raising your property taxes, this is a story you need to hear.

There is no doubt Chicago’s landmark skyscrapers bring in much needed tax revenue, Trump Tower included. However the presidential candidate who wrote, “The Art of the Deal” got a sweet deal doing things the Chicago way.

In an unusual campaign season, celebrity and presidential candidate Donald Trump is pushing his “I’m a winner” message. From his announcement at the Trump Tower in New York to Illinois and the building that bears his name, there is no doubt who owns the Chicago building with 20-foot steel letters emblazoned on 92 floors of shiny glass.

The Trump Tower is a landmark in Chicago’s skyline. The penthouse sold for $17 million in 2014. But a WGN investigation found that when it comes to taxes, the building is basically split into thirds, with condos on top, a hotel in the middle, and commercial space at the bottom. It is that bottom third we wanted to look at. It is assessed at a little more than $3 million, about the same amount that you could use to buy a two-bedroom condo on the 38th floor overlooking the Chicago River.

“In Cook County especially, no other county or government assesses with the complexity that is Cook County,” said Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, a tax and policy group.  “Because there are so many parcels, there is more than a million parcels in Cook County, it is very difficult to do apples to apples comparisons, even among the commercial properties.

Added Msall, “Commercial properties are assessed not only on the value – perceived market value but also the income that is generated for them. So there is a lot of complicated factors as to how we do property taxes in Cook County.”

There are pages and pages of complications in fact. WGN Investigations asked to look at the tax appeal for the Trump Tower for only one year, 2010. We received 1,790 pages for just part of the file.

This is where it makes your head spin. The Trump Tower has hundreds of different tax assessments -- from the hotel rooms, which are separately assessed, to the slice we looked at, the common areas, the restaurant, the retail shops and parking. That one deal is really strange. At one point it is assessed higher that the hotel. Then, the next year it flip-flops. In 2009, that section of the Trump Tower was assessed at $10.5 million. After an appeal, the assessment dropped in half. Then in 2011 it dropped again to $4.5 million. In 2012 it dropped again to just over $3 million.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at UIC who has written about shaky political deals, says the system is not good for the taxpayer. Simpson maintains, “Every time that a Trump tower or a parking garage or a hotel doesn’t pay their fair share of taxes, we do. We still have to raise the same amount of tax money. So if Trump is getting off paying only a half or a quarter what he should, we’re still paying the rest.”

Trump is not the only one to get a good deal. Last year the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Mesirow building in River North won a $1.7 million tax reduction. The investors hired Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s law firm. Trump did even better for himself: he hired Alderman Ed Burke’s law firm. Burke saved Trump millions in property taxes by dropping that one piece of the Tower’s assessed value 70 percent over four years.

Convenient, isn’t it? Hire the law firms run by the most powerful politicians in the state or city, and presto -- big tax savings.

Simpson wants the process changed.

“We ought to have a law that would make it illegal for them to represent private firms and citizens before the government. We don’t,” Simpson said.

It may not be in Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal,” but as the building was underway, he gave $10,000 to the Cook County Democratic Party, chaired by none other than Joe Berrios who handles tax appeals. In 2010, Trump gave Alderman Brendan Reilly $5,000. Trump Tower is in Reilly’s ward. Trump then donated a whopping $50,000 to then mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel.

In 2015 the Illinois Hotel PAC that Trump routinely donates to handed Alderman Burke $1,500 and Speaker Madigan $20,000.

Simpson called it a subtle corruption, saying, “We sort of know if someone takes a direct bribe in an envelope that that is wrong, but we don’t get that the big boys play this a lot different for bigger stakes.”

While it may not be in its sales brochures, the appraisal used by Trump’s attorney Ed Burke argued that much of the space is empty and cannot generate money. They called it worthless, wasted and unusable. Assessor Berrios agrees blaming his predecessor for getting its value wrong so Berrios lowered it. For his part, Speaker Madigan’s spokesman says there is no connection between his tax law firm and his role as Speaker.  He refuses to do business with anyone seeking a benefit from the State of Illinois.

To be fair, it is important to note while Trump may have gotten a multi-million dollar break, businesses and homeowners get tax breaks on average more often than not. Sixty percent of the time, the assessor lowers your property tax when you take the time to appeal.

Msall says that’s not a good record. “It appears that they’re wrong more often than they are right in their initial assessment which also feeds into a system and a lack of confidence in the government that they are getting it right so you have to challenge your taxes,” he said.

So, in this ever complex, subjective process, it helps to hire the right people to get the best deal. It could be a page out of Trump’s own book. As Simpson says, “Well, you can’t lower property taxes if the big boys aren’t paying them.”

For 2015, the assessment is back up to over 4 million.  Trump and Burke’s law firm are considering filing for a tax appeal with the Cook County Board of Review. A spokesman for Assessor Berrios says they may not get the assessment right the first time because of limited information, but that the appeal process works because it allows them to get the information so they get it right the second time.