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Editorial: Property tax fairness takes another hit

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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When you get walloped by a big hike in your property taxes, as most Chicago homeowners are right now, it helps to take comfort in the thought that at least you are not all alone — everybody is taking a hit.

But that works only if you feel confident Cook County’s system for calculating property taxes plays no favorites, that no alderman or rich guy with clout gets an insider’s discount.

Unfortunately in Cook County, you would be a chump to hold such comforting thoughts, not when the top elected official in charge of your property tax bill, the county assessor, is the utterly compromised Joe Berrios.

That’s the backdrop for investigative reporter Tim Novak’s story in Sunday’s Sun-Times that of 19 aldermen who applied for property tax reductions on the bills that were due Monday, 18 won some kind of reduction — a success rate of about 95 percent.

How lucky for them. In the real world of the average homeowner, the odds of scoring a tax deduction range, year to year, from about 40 to 60 percent.

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In Cook County, there are several ways to seek a reduction in your property tax bill. A number of the aldermen got their reductions from Berrios. Others got theirs from the Cook County Board of Review, where two of the three commissioners are Democrats in a county party organization headed by — Berrios.

Were all those deductions legit? Who knows? Which is exactly the problem.

In most cases, assessing a property’s value amounts to an educated guess. Someone in the assessor’s office or at the Board of Review can easily put a thumb on the scales. And that’s why we’ve always been so troubled by Berrios, who has two thumbs. His conflicts of interest are blatant.

After being elected assessor in 2010, Berrios plunked his sister and his son onto the payroll. When the Cook County Board of Ethics protested, Berrios shrugged it off. By 2012, the Sun-Times has reported, Berrios had 13 other relatives on various government payrolls, too.

Berrios wound up in court when the county’s inspector general pressed him to turn over documents involving an employee and an allegedly improper tax exemption. A federal court monitor said: “The general impression of the employees in the office was that employment actions were based on nepotism, favoritism or politics.”

Cap that with Berrios’ relationship with the law firm of Michael Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman. Madigan’s law firm comes in front of Berrios ‘ office to get assessments lowered on clients’ properties. Meanwhile, Berrios goes to Springfield to ask Madigan and his legislative minions to do the bidding of Berrios’ consulting firm.

Maybe all 18 of those aldermen — Democrats like Berrios — got their property tax deductions fair and square. It is not impossible to flip “heads” 18 times in a row, just very unlikely.

But, sorry to say, we see no reason you should believe that. Not when it’s Berrios running the property tax game.

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