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Tax Break for Vacant Storefronts Elimination Stalls Amid Political Brawl

 Some vacant or partially vacant buildings in Chicago.
Vacant or Partially Vacant Chicago Buildings
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CHICAGO — An effort to reduce the number of vacant storefronts in Chicago neighborhoods stalled in Springfield last week amid a political brawl sparked by the race for Illinois governor.

A measure proposed by state Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Jefferson Park) — designed to crack down on those who take advantage of that law and commit "vacancy fraud" — won't move forward before the legislative session ends May 31, Martwick said, even though it gained the support of a powerful Republican last week.

After countless meetings, Martwick said he — along with Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward is pockmarked with long-vacant storefronts that have stymied decades of economic development efforts and representatives of the Cook County Assessor's Office — were making progress on finding a way to protect the "good guys" while taking action against the minority of property owners building owners who are happy to let their property sit empty — and collect a tax deduction — rather than find tenants.

"I'm not one to force it down people's throats, so I wasn't going to call it for a vote," Martwick said. "I'm very hopeful we are on the right path, but we are not there yet."

But then Martwick was notified that Republican leader Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin had signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor of the measure. Durkin promptly issued a press release proclaiming that “corporations or unscrupulous property owners should not be able to receive special breaks or deals at the expense of communities."

Martwick said he lost his temper when he realized what Durkin had done and launched into a "tirade" that caused a "kerfluffle" on the floor of the Illinois House.

Durkin "is using my bill to take a shot at J.B. Pritzker, who is one of six Democratic candidates in a race that is 14 months away," Martwick said. "I am profoundly disappointed. He crossed a line."

Durkin, who did not mention Pritzker by name in his statement, did not return a phone call from DNAinfo Friday afternoon seeking comment.

The fracas erupted after the Sun-Times reported that Pritzker, a billionaire, bought a historic mansion next door to his Gold Coast home, and told Cook County officials it was uninhabitable, garnering nearly $230,000 in property-tax breaks.

The Illinois Republican Party has blistered Pritzker with criticism over the issue, which the Democratic candidate has dismissed as a distraction.

"Durkin never talked to me once," Martwick said. "He knows the bill is going nowhere for now."

Current state law allows the owners of properties that become vacant unexpectedly to ask tax officials for a break on their bill — as long as they are doing everything possible to find a new tenant for the store or office. Martwick's bill is focused on commercial properties, not residences.

But there are troubled properties that have received the break for decades — when, in some cases, the owners should be paying the property's tax bill in full, Martwick said.

If the measure authored by Martwick is passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner, government agencies that collect property taxes — like the City of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education — would have an incentive to investigate the claims of property owners asking for the vacancy deduction, Martwick said.

If officials determine that claim was false or fraudulent, they could force those owners to pay back three times what they owe as punishment, according to the measure.

"I'm very upset," Martwick said. "On the floor of the House, that's where you should put the nonsense aside."

Durkin's action will further poison the already fraught atmosphere in Springfield where wrangling between the General Assembly — controlled by Democrats — has been at loggerheads with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The state has been without a budget for two years, Martwick said.

"Silly and unfortunate acts like this don't bode well for a budget," Martwick said. "Or for our ability to get anything done at all."