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Editorial: Rule needs to go

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) | Sun-Times files

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) | Sun-Times files

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Updated: July 4, 2013 6:37AM

Why would the Chicago City Council approve a resolution that prohibits the city’s lawyers from going after people who might owe the city money?

Seems self-evidently stupid to us, but that’s exactly what the Council did in 2002.

And one lucky alderman, Edward M. Burke, has benefitted wonderfully.

Maybe it’s time the City Council reversed course on that resolution.

Yes, definitely.

In stories in Sunday’s and Monday’s Chicago Sun-Times, investigative reporter Tim Novak details how Burke, the Council’s most powerful alderman and a highly successful property-assessment lawyer, obtains tax cuts and refunds for his clients by handling their appeals before an obscure state agency, the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board.

In the last decade, Burke’s law firm has won more than $3.1 million in tax refunds and interest payments for his clients by pesuading the state board to reduce assessments on real estate owned by the clients. When assessments are reduced, of course, local governments lose tax revenue. The city of Chicago alone has had to pay more than $600,000 to Burke’s clients.

One might think City Hall would contest these appeals before the state board, and sometimes it does — but never when the reduction being sought in the assessed value of a property is less than $1 million. That curious 2002 City Council resolution prohibits city lawyers from contesting requested reductions of less than $1 million.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Burke has been known to ask for property assessment cuts of exactly $999,999.

Mara Georges, corporation counsel for Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2002, told Novak that she suggested the resolution because she wanted rules on which property assessment appeals to challenge. Contesting cases costs money, she said, so the city has to decide when to bother, and she didn’t want to be accused of unfairly “picking and choosing.”

We get that. We really do. In a hinky town like Chicago, a smart City Hall lawyer goes the extra effort to make it clear that everything is on the up and up.

But voluntarily give up a power to save the city money? We don’t get that at all.

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