The gloves came off in the race for 43rd Ward alderman as incumbent Ald. Michele Smith accused challenger Caroline Vickrey of not paying her “fair share” of property taxes on her home as the two candidates debated Monday night.
The well-attended debate, sponsored by several neighborhood organizations, was held in the Steppenwolf Theater. The candidates traded several barbs, many involving ethics. But the one that caught the attention of the audience was Smith calling out Vickrey’s personal property tax records.
“I’m afraid that Caroline is very willing to increase our property taxes and indicated pretty blithely that she’s going to increase them. But I’m afraid that Ms. Vickrey is not necessarily paying her own fair share of property taxes,” Smith said. “Her own home is a hundred-year-old renovated single family home that she has valued through persistent property tax appeals as an old three-flat. So all of us have to do our share in property taxes, but I think as a public official, we each have to pay our own fair share of property taxes before we raise other people’s.”
According to tax records, Vickrey’s home is still classified as a multi-unit residence despite the property being converted to a single-family home in 2007. The former classification is assessed at a lower level than the latter, which could lead to a smaller property tax burden. The records indicate that the Vickrey’s filed tax appeals in 2012, when their property was assessed at $1.8 million, 2013 and 2014. The property’s current assessment, $1.03 million, is significantly lower and has resulted in thousands of dollars less in property taxes.
While Vickrey did not initially respond to the accusation, later in the debate, she said that “if there’s something that we’re doing illegal, it will be corrected.”
After the debate, she further said that she had not known of the issue until Smith brought it up in the debate.
“I know that the people who owned the property before probably did use it to evade some sort of property taxes,” Vickrey said. “We pulled all of our permits legally in order to do what we did when we transformed it into one unit and we will be willing to make this other record clear.”
“This was not something we went and changed,” she added. “It was just simply a continuation of what was there before I’m assuming.”
The issue was part of a night where ethics and transparency took center stage. Smith came out swinging with the property tax accusation and again asked Vickrey to admit that she was a part of the lawsuit that the Mid-North Association brought against the Children’s Memorial Hospital site redevelopment while she was a member of the board. Vickrey acknowledged raising money initially for the lawsuit regarding the Lincoln School annex, but said she’s done nothing since.
“It’s pretty straightforward to say you’re not part of Mid-North anymore that you recently resigned, you voted for the lawsuit as part of Mid-North,” Smith said. “Please, be straight with the voters.”
Smith’s response did garner some chuckles from the crowd, however, as some in the community, including Vickrey, have accused her of breaking promises regarding the development of Children’s and the Lincoln Elementary School annex.
“Our alderman promised to make decisions transparently, and these decisions have not made with transparency,” Vickrey said. “There have been secret agendas, secret meetings, and meetings behind closed doors.”
Smith, much like her ally Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has rubbed some people the wrong way. She acknowledged this and pledged to improve.
“I’ve prided myself on being an advocate for my community,” Smith said. “And I could listen better.”
“And I could be more friends with the people in this neighborhood, which is what I’ve proposed to do,” she said. “Which is why I’ve sent a letter out to the community saying I can be more collegial in conversation.”
Smith could not escape ethical questions herself, as Vickrey pressed her on the art foundation that she consults for. The part-time gig became an issue before the runoff as Smith had repeatedly said that she is a full-time alderman.
“This foundation was founded by one of your biggest campaign contributors. It makes it look as if it’s a way to circumvent campaign finance laws,” Vickrey said. “And it also brings up questions about the tax-deductible state of that foundation. There are lots of ethical issues that it raises and people are concerned.”
Smith vehemently denied any wrongdoing, however, and again said that she is a full-time alderman.
“I’ve been fully transparent about this, I’ve fully disclosed everything within my ethical obligations as your alderman, and it’s all online,” Smith said. “And there’s absolutely no evidence and it’s not at all true, anything that you just said quite frankly.”
Smith sought to turn the page on the contentious issues of the past four years, urging her neighbors to “move on” regarding the development decisions that have been made.
“Moving forward is the number one thing we need to do in our neighborhood,” Smith said after the debate. “We came to fair resolutions and we want to move forward with everyone in the community.”
Moving forward in the race, the next debate will be Thursday night at 7 p.m. at 1763 N. North Park Avenue, hosted by the Old Town Triangle Association.