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County officials quiz Berrios about fairness of property assessments

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County commissioners on Tuesday expressed concern that the system used by Assessor Joseph Berrios to estimate real estate values favors the wealthy at the expense of the poor — even as many showed deference to the influential Democratic Partyleader and no quick solutions were offered up.

Berrios appeared before the County Board in the aftermath of a Tribune investigation that detailed widespread inequities created by valuations from the assessor's office.

"The questions raised (by the Tribune) are very, very concerning," said Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a Chicago Democrat who serves as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's floor leader.

"Are poor people getting shafted in the Chicagoland community?" Garcia asked

n response, Berrios repeated what he has done previously in a news conference and a public-television appearance: Heent on the attack against the newspaper's findings.

Berrios said conclusions that his work fell outside industry standards were "simply nonsense." He aintained that "we value properties fairly and accurately."

However, he offered no detailed defense of his methodology or further explanation of how valuations are being made.

Garcia said afterward that he wasn't ready to accept Berrios' assertions, noting that the Tribune found that a method funded by the MacArthur Foundatioin and designed to address system inequities had not been fully implemented, despite a 2015 news release declaring it would be used.

"I'm not satisfied with the answers, because we were at this juncture two years ago, and hoping that a solution that was identified would be implemented, and it hasn't been implemented," said Garcia, one of the commissioners who called for the unprecedented hearing on whether a separately elected, countywide official was properly fulfilling his duties.

Berrios, who testified alongside five aides and one private county consultant, said the system announced in the release turned out to have flaws, including "values ... for homes in lower market areas that (were) artificially high."

"So," he said, "we decided to only use it in a limited way."

Preckwinkle, at the conclusion of the hearing, after commissioners had exhausted their chances to ask questions, issued a press release reiterating her intention to have outside parties review the assessment system. The press release stated that she has asked the Civic Consulting Alliance to outline a way to have outside entities determine if Berrios' system is fair.

Preckwinkle is vice chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, for which Berrios serves as chairman, and she describes Berrios as not only an ally but also a friend.

Said Garcia: "I'm hoping the announcement will be more about a real solution and less about damage control."

Berrios testified before the board's Finance Committee, which took no action after hearing from him. Most commissioners, many of whom rely on the Democratic Party for support come election time, did not challenge Berrios. Some even sang his praises.

The Tribune's "Tax Divide" series, published in June, concluded that the assessor's office overvalued low-priced homes while undervaluing high-priced ones. These disparities in assessments — known as regressivity — led to inequities in property tax bills, giving the wealthy unsanctioned tax breaks while penalizing low-income residents.

"I do believe there is regressivity in the system," said Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, who like Garcia represents lower-income, minority Chicago residents on the city's West Side. But he also praised Berrios for appearing at the hearing, saying it "suggests there's a willingness to sit down and work and try to figure out how do we fix the system."

In the weeks since the series, mounting pressure has put the assessor on the defensive. The county's independent inspector general opened an investigation; lawmakers at the state and local levels proposed legislation to limit the assessor's ability to raise campaign contributions from tax attorneys; and a bill has been introduced in the General Assembly that would require greater transparency.

Pushing back against Berrios' assertions at the hearing was Christopher Berry, a University of Chicago public policy professor who played a key role in building the new system that was never fully implemented. The MacArthur-funded model was touted in a news release two years ago by Berrios' office.

During his testimony at the hearing, Berry questioned why the county would conduct another study, when several had already been done.

"The taxpayers of Cook County do not need another study of regressivity," Berry said. "They live with it on a daily basis. What they need is leadership to fix the problem."

Berry said that Berrios' current system was "neither fair nor accurate."

The Tribune investigation, which analyzed 100 million property tax records from the years 2003 through 2015, found that lower-income minority homeowners paid more in taxes, as a percent of the value of their homes, than largely white, more affluent homeowners.

Berry called the county's assessment system regressive and said it represented a form of "institutional racism."

He also addressed the forceful assertions by Berrios, a Latino who grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project, that he was not a racist.

"I am not saying that Joe Berrios or anybody on his staff is racist," Berry said. "I am saying ... that the assessment system we have produces racially discriminatory assessments and taxes."

Berry also said transparency would dictate that the county release additional information about its methods that the Tribune has sued to obtain.

"We have in Cook County something that amounts to taxation without explanation," he quipped.

Also pushing back was Robert Weissbourd, president of the consulting firm RW Ventures, which led the team building the MacArthur-funded model.

"We are systematically overassessing homes in poor communities — the people that can afford it less — and it's time to fix it," he said, suggesting the county might be ripe for an expensive legal action on the issue.

And several community activists talked about clients of their nonprofit groups who were struggling to make ends meet and were hit with high assessments they sometimes did not have the wherewithal to challenge.

Backing the assessor at the hearing was Tyler Technologies researcher Richard Borst. Tyler has a $30 million contract with the county to provide a new computer system to handle property taxes.

Borst also spoke at the assessor's news conference last month. After raising issues with the Tribune's analysis, he had acknowledged during questioning that he had not read the 100-plus-page analysis the Tribune posted online.

At Tuesday's hearing, Borst said this time he had read the analysis and came up with a new criticism. He said the Tribune's methodology was flawed because it compared assessments with sales that took place within a year after assessments went out. However, this is a standard practice that was recommended to the Tribune by top experts in the field.

The Tribune had three experts examine its analysis, including how it selected sales. Two of the experts helped write standards for the International Association of Assessing Officers.

Jason Grotto, a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, contributed.

Twitter @ReporterHal

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