Rocky assessment process gives Chicago Bears partial break on taxes on proposed stadium site, but leaves team ‘disappointed’

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The Chicago Bears got part of the reduction they wanted in the property tax assessment for their potential new stadium site in Arlington Heights, but lingering questions about the process and result, which left the team “disappointed,” suggest the matter may not be over.

The Cook County Board of Review on Thursday lowered the 2023 assessment for the former Arlington International Racecourse to $125 million from the $192 million that the Cook County assessor had set. That could result in a one-year tax of about $10 million.

The night before the board’s ruling, Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele released to the Tribune what she said was the board analysts’ proposed valuation of $138 million that, according to her, had tentative agreement among the commissioners.

After that news broke, the other two commissioners, George Cardenas and Larry Rogers, voted to lower the assessment to $125 million.

Cardenas said the $138 million was not final, and that he followed the findings of the certified analysts to render a decision that was fair for all parties, based on comparable land values in the area.

Tensions between Steele and the board’s other members have simmered in recent months. Rogers has served on the board since 2004, while Cardenas and Steele took office in late 2022. Cardenas and Rogers have generally been allies of late, agreeing on valuations and office operations, and together, have the power to outvote Steele.

On Friday, the board’s general counsel and ethics officer, Cristin Duffy, wrote a letter to attorneys for the Bears and local schools, thanking them for bringing the matter to her attention. Duffy called Steele’s communication with the media “premature and inappropriate,” saying it “gives the appearance of impropriety, and infringes on the due process rights of the parties that appear before the CCBOR.”

“No commissioner should appear to leverage the decision in a case,” wrote Duffy, a former prosecutor and judicial candidate. “Any final decision ‘shall be by a majority vote of its commissioners.’ … Thus, taking unilateral action on behalf of the CCBOR is a flagrant violation of state law.”

Steele responded that she was bringing transparency to the process, and alleged the other board members pressured their analysts to change the valuation.

“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” she said. “They gave the Bears a $10 million discount.”

Steele in recent weeks has criticized the board’s operations, assumptions for determining certain property values, and technology. In a memo to county commissioners sent earlier this month, Steele complained the other board members did not use uniform calculations for appeals. She also flagged overuse of overtime in the other offices, and asked that the three budgets be separated and an audit be performed on the Board of Review’s operations.

Rogers, who is up for reelection for a sixth term, has pushed back on Steele’s criticisms of board operations and technology. He shot back in a separate memo that Steele had a “propensity to speak as if she is representing the agency without consulting her colleagues.”

Outside of the boardroom, the Bears and the schools could still negotiate an agreement with each other, or could appeal the Board of Review’s decision, either to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board or in the courts. Those higher appeals, if successful, might mean local taxing bodies have to pay to refund the team for overvaluations.

A team statement said the Bears were “disappointed” by the decision, saying it was far out of line with other large properties in the area. Team officials want to leave their rented home in Soldier Field, and have been in talks with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson over a possible new stadium next door.

The team has proposed a $5 billion development of the Arlington Heights site to include an enclosed stadium with adjoining housing and entertainment.

The Bears had tried to negotiate a tax settlement with Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, Palatine-based Township High School District 211 and Palatine Community Consolidated School District 15, which receive the bulk of the property tax revenue from the racetrack site. But the team’s appraisal was for $60 million, while the schools’ was for $160 million, and they didn’t reach an agreement.

Last year, the schools had agreed with the former property owners, Churchill Downs Inc., to value the track at $95 million. That roughly tripled the tax Churchill Downs had paid before closing the track in 2021.

The Bears bought the site for $197 million in 2023. Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office valued the site at nearly the same amount. The team accused the assessor of “sales chasing,” pegging the assessment to the sales price without making it equitable with other properties.

The state constitution prohibits sales chasing, although court rulings allow the price to be considered as a key indicator of market value.

Assessor officials said they looked at comparable values in the area in raising the land value nearly sevenfold. The Bears countered that other comparable large properties, like the former Allstate and United Airlines headquarters, were valued at far below their sales prices.

School officials warned that setting the value of the property too low could result in other taxpayers having to pay more. Though the schools would not get any new students from the site for years, officials are leery of legislation that could freeze the property value for decades.

The current valuation of the site could result in a one-year tax of more than $10 million — about three times the average salary for one Bears player in the 2022-23 season, according to Statista.

The Bears demolished the Arlington Park grandstand last year in an effort to have the site classified as vacant, at a 10% tax rate. Since the demolition wasn’t completed until near the end of the year, the board ruling kept its designation as commercial, for a 25% tax rate, but it will likely change to vacant in future years until it is developed.