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Cook County property taxes: Show us the damages

Monday, August 09, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Rule of thumb: The later Cook County property tax bills arrive in mailboxes, the happier the citizenry will be. Just as no one ever washes a rented car, no homeowner or business begs to receive a tax bill sooner.

Amendment to the rule of thumb: Given the anti-incumbent hostility of 2010, platoons of terrified officeholders will be thrilled — thrilled! — if voters stay ignorant of how many thousands they owe in property taxes until the polls close on Nov. 2.

Question about the rule as amended: Nobody would manipulate the timing of tax bills — bills that by law were to be mailed, received and paid by Aug. 1 — just to sneak past Election Day, right?

Answer: That's what the departing county assessor, James Houlihan, accuses two fellow Democrats of plotting. Last March, Houlihan predicted that many of this fall's tax bills will be much higher than county residents expect. Houlihan said Michael Madigan (head of the state Democratic Party) and assessor candidate Joe Berrios (head of the county Democratic Party) were scheming to delay the bills — the better to keep voters already furious with ruling Democrats from becoming more furious.

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Madigan, Berrios — you say those names ring a bell? Madigan is speaker of the Illinois House; his law firm represents clients seeking lower assessments from a county appeals panel, the Board of Review. Berrios, a member of that board, moonlights as a lobbyist seeking favors in Springfield from — Madigan.

Houlihan is correct to criticize that incestuous relationship. Is he correct to accuse the other Dems of playing self-serving games with your tax bill?

We could drive you from the room shrieking by repeating all the blame Houlihan and Berrios are trading. Essentially, Berrios says Houlihan didn't finish the assessment process soon enough, so the subsequent appeals process is delayed. Houlihan says he finished his work in April, and Berrios' board is slow-walking the appeals. Compounding the dispute: This year brought a record number of appeals. And, even before that, the annual timeline for preparing these "second-half" tax bills had been drifting later. The last time Cook County mailed second-half bills on time? 1978.

Berrios told us Thursday that his board's goal is to finish judging appeals by Sept. 15 — or before. He praised county Treasurer Maria Pappas, who at one point this summer shifted all 110 of her employees to helping Berrios & Co. prepare appeals files for adjudication by the Board of Review. Before that, Houlihan adds, Pappas also had loaned workers to help his staff accelerate its workflow. Good for her. We've argued for years that many more county employees should be cross-trained so that during slow stretches (talking to you, Recorder Gene Moore), they could assist other, overloaded offices. Happens in the private sector all the time.

The money line: Pappas told us Thursday that, if Berrios' board delivers as he projects, "I believe bills will be sent out before the election." That's big. Pappas mails the bills and wants them out asap.

So let's be clear: The pressure is on Berrios and fellow Board of Review members Larry Rogers Jr. and Brendan Houlihan. They can turn this into a non-story by making sure Pappas has time to properly test the accuracy of the data dumps she receives and then issue the bills. Or the three Democrats can turn this into a whale of a story by fulfilling Assessor Houlihan's prophecy.

Bonus amendment to the amended rule of thumb: The sooner tax bills are issued and paid, the less money school districts and other governments risk having to borrow to cover payrolls and other expenses. Less public borrowing means fewer tax dollars wasted on unproductive interest payments — a fact we wish every Illinois politician from Gov. Pat Quinn on down would take to heart.

Epilogue: Nothing can be allowed to delay delivery of tax bills until the election. Voters deserve transparency in government, costs included. Show us the damages. We're waiting — and watching.

Mr. Berrios, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Brendan Houlihan: Borrow employees, resolve every appeal — and prove Assessor Houlihan wrong. Or, come Election Day, you'll wear the jacket.

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