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Tax Tale
Assessor Houlihan is installing loyalists at agencies that review his decisions

Monday, November 27, 2006
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

The whole basis of our democracy is checks and balances. Congress eyeballs the president. Republicans scrutinize Democrats. Judges boss around the mayor. The media gets to kick around everybody. It's the American way.

No system is perfect, though. Which leads to the story of how Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan in recent weeks not only managed to win re-election with a paltry 80% of the vote but at the same time effectively take control of both of the regulatory agencies with the power to overrule his decisions.

Mr. Houlihan says he had good reasons and argues he doesn't control anyone except himself. But you might want to keep your wallet close by while you read the details.

The first move involved the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB), which hears appeals of assessments statewide. As first reported by Crain's last month, Mr. Houlihan got Gov. Rod Blagojevich to replace PTAB's executive director with a new man who until recently had been a top aide to, um, Mr. Houlihan.

PTAB and the assessor have been fighting for years about which of the two does the better job of assessing property. Mr. Houlihan tried a few years ago to get the Illinois General Assembly to restrict PTAB to hearing cases Downstate, but lawmakers balked.

Sweet as it was to win the PTAB war, Mr. Houlihan scored a bigger victory on Election Day.

In a strategic political strike worthy of Richard J. Daley in his prime, Mr. Houlihan and an ally at the last minute quietly dropped $100,000 into the campaign of Brendan Houlihan for what amounts to the swing seat of the Cook County Board of Review, which reviews assessments in Cook County. (The two Houlihans are not related.)

The money arrived in several chunks about 10 days before the election late enough to prevent much coverage by the media, but soon enough to allow Brendan Houlihan to finance a late blitz of direct-mail and radio ads aimed at GOP incumbent Maureen Murphy. When the dust settled, Brendan Houlihan emerged with a narrow 14,000-vote edge out of nearly 500,000 votes cast.

"Those negative mailers and radio ads probably made the difference," says John Norris, an attorney and lobbyist for the Illinois Property Tax Lawyers Assn. "Do you really want to have the assessor controlling who is going to oversee his own assessments?"

Now, Mr. Norris is not exactly a disinterested party. He's a property tax lawyer, someone whose job it is to get Jim Houlihan, PTAB or the Board of Review to lower assessments on his clients' property. Some property tax lawyers not necessarily including Mr. Norris have had their problems with Mr. Houlihan.

On the other hand, the matter becomes even stickier when you consider who Mr. Houlihan's partner was in coming up with the last-minute money for Brendan Houlihan. That would be Larry Rogers Jr., one of the other two members of the Board of Review.

Yes, you read that right. Mr. Rogers and Jim Houlihan joined together to provide vital campaign cash to someone who will now hold the second seat on the board, which potentially makes the third board member, Joseph Berrios, irrelevant.

Of course, Messrs. Houlihan and Mr. Rogers have their own side of this. Their general argument is that Ms. Murphy and Mr. Berrios were too friendly with big property owners and blocked reform steps needed to bring balance and transparency to the office.

"I don't expect either the board or PTAB to be anything other than an independent and thoughtful part of the process. That hasn't been the situation," Jim Houlihan puts it. "The check and balance is the integrity of the individuals that are serving."

Agreed. In my book, though, few folks drop $100K solely in the interest of good government. They want something, like friends in the right places in the often subjective business of setting land values.

Having friends is good for the assessor. Time will tell if it's good for the
rest of us.

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