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Assessor Berrios offers no timeline on property tax study 3 months after Preckwinkle ordered it up

Friday, October 27, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

A review of Cook County’s fundamentally flawed property tax system is stuck in neutral more than three months after Board President Toni Preckwinkle ordered it up, but Assessor Joseph Berrios denies he’s trying to delay the study until after he runs for re-election in March.

Appearing at a Friday budget hearing, Berrios could offer no timeline on the study’s completion, drawing criticism from a county commissioner who wanted answers. Later, a Preckwinkle aide would only say they were “making deliberate progress and continuing to engage with the various stakeholders.

“Everyone’s goal is to get this right and our belief is that by continuing to work in good faith we can achieve that,” Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said.

The uncertainty remains four months since the Chicago Tribune published its “Tax Divide” series. The investigation concluded the county’s property tax system created an unequal burden on residents, handing huge financial breaks to homeowners who are well-off while punishing those who have the least, particularly people living in minority communities.

Preckwinkle, who is seeking a third term next year, is an ally of Berrios, the powerful county Democratic chairman. In July, Preckwinkle announced that an outside evaluation of the property tax assessment system was underway, with a group called the Civic Consulting Alliance heading it up. She did so as Berrios was being grilled by commissioners during a hearing in the wake of the Tribune series.

On Friday, Berrios was back on the hot seat at his annual budget hearing. He faced questions from Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat who represents large swaths of the West Side and Maywood, areas where many low-income African-American homeowners live.

“What has happened (since Preckwinkle’s announcement)?” Boykin asked.

Berrios said both the Consulting Alliance and Tyler Group — a contractor being paid to work on county computer systems — were looking into the issue.

“There are various different (assessment) models out there,” Berrios said. “The model that Cook County has used has been one that has been very efficient, and they are looking at it all, and if they can come up with a better system, we will absolutely use a better system.”

Pressed on how quickly the work would be done, Berrios said the Consulting Alliance had been “given space” to work in his office, but he wasn’t going to give them a deadline.

“Whether I like the report or don’t like the report, they’re gonna come up with an independent report, and for me to tell them they need it by a certain date and demand that they finish it by a certain date, to me would be unfair to them,” Berrios said. “They’re coming in to look at not only the system, they’re looking at the entire system within the office. And they’re going to look at the Board of (Tax) Review also.”

A few minutes later, Commissioner Peter Silvestri, an Elmwood Park Republican, asked about the status of the review. Responded Berrios: “I can’t tell them what to do.”

The hearing came a day after county Clerk David Orr, an independent Democrat, endorsed first-time candidate Fritz Kaegi in his bid to unseat to unseat Berrios in the March primary election.

Orr said he’s frustrated that there have been no changes since the Tribune’s stories ran in June. In the meantime, thousands of homes have been reassessed, he said. And despite Preckwinkle’s July announcement, two steering committee meetings to move that process along have since been canceled, Orr said.

“I believe the assessor’s problem is enormous and it is getting not enough attention,” Orr said in a recent interview. “This is like this great big threat is all around us, and we’re still peddling along with our tricycle.”

After Friday’s hearing, Berrios said further meetings were put off because lawyers for the county and Consulting Alliance were determining “how far they could go legally,” given court cases “that the county’s defending right now.”

“It had nothing to do with us,” Berrios said when asked if political motivations played a role. “We’ve been cooperating.”

Berrios said he expected another steering committee meeting in the next week or two. “I want them to tell me where they’re at,” he said.

The steering committee met once, in August, when a timeline for the study process was distributed. Officials hoped to agree on “specific improvement areas” by mid-November and have “solutions developed” before Christmas.

Asked by the Tribune if there was any effort to push off completion of the study until after the March primary, Berrios said: “No, not all. I want to know what the heck is going on.”

“If they come in with an idea that makes the system better, I will implement it immediately,” Berrios said

It wouldn’t be the first time Berrios promised changes to the system.

The “Tax Divide” series noted that Berrios issued a July 2015 news release stating that his office had adopted new state-of-the-art computer models designed to improve accuracy and address persistent inequalities in the assessment system put together with the help of outside experts. Berrios never fully implemented that system, the series concluded.

In July, Berrios said that the newer system — a model backed by a MacArthur Foundation grant — was inaccurate. The new model was created under the direction of Christopher Berry, a University of Chicago public policy professor who has maintained no further studies are needed and would be “a waste of time.”

After Friday’s hearing, Boykin said he remains concerned about the state of the county assessment system.

“There’s no timeline that he put forward that taxpayers of Cook County are going to get an assurance that we’re going to get a system in place that’s going to be fair in terms of these assessments,” Boykin said.

Taxpayers, he added, “would say the system is broken, and it’s badly broken and in need of serous repair. Quite frankly, we can’t just have window dressing, and put these committees forward to get through the next election.”

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