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Joe Berrios' property tax debacle

Friday, July 21, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Start with three points that are obvious, especially for anyone whose payment is due this month:

Illinois local governments collect some of the very highest property taxes in the nation. A huge share of the money that runs Illinois schools and other crucial services comes from these same property taxes. And the rising public outcry is so loud, the burden on employers so egregious, that the governor of this state has demanded a temporary property tax freeze.

And here's what ought to be obvious to Illinois legislators and local officials but evidently isn't: If you're going to be this reliant on a locally run tax system, it had better be accurate, transparent and fair.

Cook County's property tax scheme is none of the above. That raises several agenda items for taxpaying voters. High on that list: dumping county Assessor Joe Berrios.

The system Berrios oversees is so opaque that it easily can be gamed, mismanaged and abused by politicians and their cronies. Why doesn't he acknowledge how unjustly his number-crunching disadvantages many citizens? Well, Berrios did boast in 2015 about his office's new and improved property valuation system. But as we've all read in 2017, he quietly abandoned that system.

That was only one maddening finding of a Tribune investigation published last month. Another: Berrios' methodology perpetuates inequities between wealthy and low-income communities. Pricier homes have been chronically undervalued by the assessor while lower-priced homes have been overvalued. Even though property owners can appeal their assessments, that process, too, typically rewards the owners of higher-priced homes.

Berrios' office also has resisted Tribune reporters' efforts to learn precisely how his system works. His methodology should be as transparent as that of an income or sales tax scheme. Of course, if Berrios did publish his actual protocols for determining a property's value, then reporters from this and other news shops would compare what assessments should be with what assessments really are — after the politically connected lawyers who shower campaign contributions on Berrios finish lobbying his office for lower assessments.

This debacle playing out in Cook County, with Berrios being grilled by county commissioners, comes at a terrible time for Illinois Democrats. Berrios is the county Democratic chairman, reporting to House Speaker Michael Madigan, the state party chairman and, by purest coincidence, a lawyer whose firm specializes in appealing property tax valuations to Berrios' office.

Democratic county commissioners who, like Berrios, are up for re-election next year represent many of the working-class and poor communities victimized by Berrios' system. Berrios' best county ally, Board President Toni Preckwinkle, will spend the next 16 months trying to explain why she won't call for his ouster.

Some of the Democrats running for governor are exploiting or trying to get ahead of the property tax issue, which should grow only more volatile as the election cycle intensifies. None of them wants to offend Madigan, but each of them knows he had better not wind up in a campaign photo clutching Berrios' paw.

Gubernatorial hopeful Chris Kennedy calls the property tax system a racket similar to extortion, citing all the political donations an assessor rakes in. State Sen. Daniel Biss, another candidate for governor, has introduced legislation to make the assessment process more transparent. Then there's candidate J.B. Pritzker, who may never live down his purchase of a mansion and his successful valuation appeal because the mansion supposedly is uninhabitable.

Ousting Berrios is only a first step. The next assessor has to be someone whose behavior in office justifies local governments' heavy reliance on the property tax. Voters, remember what Cook County and its current pols don't give you: a system that's accurate, transparent and fair.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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