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Cook assessor charges Madigan, Berrios with 'chicanery,' 'coverup'

Thursday, April 01, 2010
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Cook County Assessor James Houlihan charged Wednesday that Democratic leaders Michael Madigan and Joseph Berrios are conspiring to place a heavier tax burden on homeowners and to delay the delivery of second-installment tax bills until after the general election Nov. 2.

At a news conference at the County Building in downtown Chicago, Houlihan accused his fellow Democrats of political "chicanery" and trying to "cover up what is going on so that homeowners will not have a chance to react."

Houlihan said that Berrios, as commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, and House Speaker Madigan, with his lucrative sideline as a property-tax attorney, were working in concert to ease assessments on commercial properties and place more of the tax burden on homeowners.

Because of that, he said, more than half of Cook homeowners will see a $600 increase in their tax bills this year, and 80 percent will notice an increase of some sort.

Houlihan also blamed Madigan's failure to back an extension of the so-called 7 percent expanded homeowner exemption, which is being phased out in Cook, resulting in higher assessments and taxes, and suggested that Madigan's loyalties actually lay not with voters, but with his commercial-property legal clients.

"Acting under the direction of Board of Review Commissioner Joe Berrios - who is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party - the board is trying to protect officials who have failed to take action to protect homeowners," Houlihan said. "The board is also acting to protect the interests of Speaker Mike Madigan, a consistent opponent of the 7 percent, who is chairman of the state Democratic Party.

"The General Assembly, under Madigan's leadership, has refused to take any action on Mayor Daley's proposal to extend the 7 percent exemption. By delaying tax bills, party leaders remove pressure on legislators to bring meaningful relief to homeowners."

At a news conference in response later in the day, Berrios called the accusations "absurd, outrageous and unfounded," adding, "I have not talked to the speaker or anyone else on this issue." He and fellow Commissioners Larry Rogers Jr. of Chicago and Brendan Houlihan of suburban Orland Park lay blame for any delay on the assessor's office, with Brendan Houlihan, no relation to the assessor, charging "mismanagement."

"The assessor drives this process," he said. "This year he is finishing a month later than last year. As a result, it is likely that the tax bills will be due a month later than they were last year. ... There is only one person to blame for this - the assessor."

"It's another factless claim by Houlihan, another signal that apparently he's bungled the assessment process." said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, He suggested the assessor "find somebody else to blame for your failure."

Assessor Houlihan, however, cited a letter from the Board of Review sent last week to County Board Finance Committee Chairman John Daley saying that bills would not be ready in time because the assessor's office would not be able to complete its duties until July. Houlihan, who is retiring from office at the end of his term, said that was an attempt to make him a scapegoat as a lame duck and that, thanks to overtime approved by County Board President Todd Stroger, his office would actually finish May 7.

"There is no reason tax bills can't be mailed in a timely fashion," he said.

"Last year, the assessor concluded his work by the end of April, and the tax bill issued with a Dec. 1 due date," Berrios pointed out. "That delay was the result of the assessor's office making massive mistakes in the application of the homeowners' exemptions."

A Board of Review release added that, as the assessor finished his process in April last year, and bills went out in late October - just before the presidential election - with a due date of Dec. 1, "logic follows" that if the assessor finishes this year in May "that the tax bills will be due in January."

Reporters pointed out, however, that the difference to May 7 from late April was only a matter of days. Asked if he would comply with any County Board edict to make sure bills will be due Dec. 1, Berrios said the Board of Review would do all it could once the assessor completed his process, but that appeals figured to be heavy this year, as Chicago is the area being reassessed.

Rogers tried to shift the argument, saying the assessor had completed only 20 of 38 townships, behind the pace for previous years and preventing the Board of Review from getting started on appeals. A spokesman for the assessor countered that 23 townships have already been completed, and appeals closed last week.

Riverside Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica called Madigan and Berrios "shameless," and Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he and Daley had agreed to put the matter on the agenda for the board's next meeting on Tuesday.

Suffredin said the political issues were not as important as the logistical, as many school districts face Dec. 1 bond payments and will have to do short-term borrowing if there's a shortfall. "My only concern is the cash flow to all the districts within our jurisdiction," he said, adding that it could "cripple" school districts already pressed for cash with the state behind in payments.

The thorny issue has been additionally complicated by rumors Chicago Democratic Commissioner Forrest Claypool could potentially run for assessor in the fall as an independent. Claypool was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment. Suffredin, a progressive ally, said he had not heard whether Claypool had a genuine interest in the office, adding, "I do not know what's running through his head."


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