The other day I was walking past Trump Tower, steaming over the sight of that wretched name on its side, when it hit me. I know a way that might make Trump take his name off that building. Make him choose between giving up the sign or the property tax break he effectively gets for having it there. He shouldn’t get both—especially not in a Democratic city like Chicago.
All right, let me explain.
The amount you pay in property taxes is partly determined by the value of your property as assessed by Cook County assessor Joe Berrios. If you think Berrios has overassessed your property, you can appeal his assessment. If he—or the Cook County Board of Review—lowers your assessment, you’ll pay less in property taxes. Over the last few years, Trump has successfully appealed several times, hiring 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke as his attorney. In addition to being chairman of the City Council’s finance committee and one of Mayor Rahm’s closest allies, Burke somehow finds the time to run a property tax appeal business.
So, in effect, Trump has depended on the kindness of powerful Democratic bosses to cut his property taxes even as he bashes the Democrats and tries to eradicate everything they believe in.
Burke recently dropped Trump as a client—in part because he’s worried the connection will cost him votes as he runs for reelection next year in a mostly Latino ward. But the damage has already been done. Thanks to Burke, Trump has saved roughly $14 million in property taxes since 2010, according to a Sun-Times exposé.
What’s worse, the less Trump pays in property taxes, the more the rest of us have to pay. I don’t know exactly how much more we have to pay to compensate for the $14 million in breaks that Burke helped Trump win. But it makes my blood boil just thinking about all of this.
When he was representing Trump, Burke argued that Berrios should lower the assessment on Trump Tower because it had so many vacant commercial units. And do you know why Trump has so many commercial vacancies? ‘Cause he put his freaking name on the building! I mean, no self-respecting Chicagoan would want anything to do with a building that has T-R-U-M-P on its side.
If you don’t believe me, believe the marketing people who are trying to lease those vacant commercial units in Trump Tower. They’ve used brochures that show the building without Trump’s name on the side. The brochure doesn’t even call it Trump Tower. It’s referred to by its address, 401 N. Wabash. Like anyone’s fooled.
There’s a Yiddish word for what Trump is displaying: chutzpah. The standard illustration of chutzpah is the man who kills his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan. In Trump’s case, he alienates prospective tenants by putting his name on his building and then throws himself at the mercy of the assessor ’cause—oh my gosh, surprise, surprise—he can’t get any tenants.
As I see it, Trump has a choice. If he wants to rent his units, he has to take his name off the building. If he wants to keep the name, he has to stop appealing for tax breaks.
“You make an interesting point,” says Tom Shaer, spokesman for Berrios. “I’ve not heard anyone raise that one—the Ben Joravsky theory. Maybe you should be a property tax lawyer.” You know, as opposed to the broke-ass writer that I am.
In other cases, the assessor has refused to lower assessments on commercial property owned by landlords who have turned off potential tenants by not taking care of their buildings, Shaer notes. Well, why not do the same for a landlord who, like Trump, makes his building radioactive to tenants? I placed a call to Fritz Kaegi, who will be the assessor in December, having defeated Berrios in this year’s Democratic primary. But he was unavailable for comment. So, Fritz, I just gave you a surefire tool to use against Trump the next time he and his lawyer come crying to you about his property taxes. Make Chicago great again—get Trump’s damn name off the building.