DOUBEK: Berrios, Preckwinkle leave more questions on elusive assessor study

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Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios was missing in action from a public hearing on his office’s property tax assessment system. An independent review found the system to be regressive in February. |Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

We’re just a couple months from the March 20th primary when Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios will face two Democratic challengers, Fritz Kaegi and Andrea Raila.

Berrios, who also is the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, has been under the microscope since last June when the Chicago Tribune and Pro Publica Illinois published a four-part series that concluded Berrios oversaw a flawed property tax system that undervalued homes and businesses owned by wealthier people, and overvalued homes and businesses owned by poorer people and those in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

OPINION

It reminded us that assessment appeals reward lawyers, some of whom also are prominent officials and Berrios allies, including House Speaker Michael Madigan and City Council Finance Chairman Ed Burke.

In practical terms, if the series’ conclusions are true, it means poorer Cook County residents likely are paying more in property taxes than they should be, while wealthier ones are paying less.

Government doesn’t hit any closer to where we live than this. Assessing the assessor, therefore, is a key job for voters this year.

For that reason, I tuned in to the livestream of the Cook County Board’s meetings last week. One of the agenda items was an update of an independent analysis of the assessment system. Mid-meeting, though, a commissioner asked that the item be removed because Berrios could not attend. Tom Shaer, deputy assessor for communications, said via email that a top Berrios aide was there to take questions, but no one from that office can say when the independent review will be released because “the Assessor’s Office does not control the study or its timing.”

The first part of the investigative series ran last June. Among other things, it discussed the fact that, in July 2015, Berrios said in a press release that his office was going to adopt a new, state-of-the-art computer model to boost the accuracy of property valuations used to calculate property tax bills. That never happened.

Last July, after the series launched, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who also is facing re-election March 20th against former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, announced that an official, outside analysis of the assessment system was under way and being conducted by a group called the Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA).

Preckwinkle’s announcement of another outside look at the assessment system, beyond the one published by investigative journalists, came as Berrios faced questions from commissioners. At budget time last October, Berrios told county commissioners the assessment model his office uses was efficient and one of many used around the country.

That was late October 2017. Here we are in January 2018, with Berrios and Preckwinkle aides now offering different answers for how the study came to be and who’s conducting it.

Shaer said the CCA is conducting the study for Preckwinkle, but her spokesman, Frank Shuftan, said she only asked CCA to recommend another consultant for the assessor.

“It is an independent study of property assessment in Cook County being conducted for the Office of the President of the Cook County Board by the impartial Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA). The Study includes all phases of property assessment, not only the Assessor’s Office. It also includes the very important Cook County Board of Review,” Shaer said. “CCA does not report to the Assessor, nor should it. The Assessor respects the CCA team, which, unlike others who recently criticized property assessment, includes assessment professionals. However, the Assessor’s only role is to cooperate fully – which he has done, is doing and will continue to do.”

In an email, Preckwinkle spokesman Shuftan said, “President Preckwinkle did not order anything. She asked the Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA), which has been helpful to her administration on a number of matters since she was first elected County Board President — budget, public safety, transportation policy are examples — to assist the Assessor’s Office in finding someone who could do a deep dive into the residential assessment system.

“The CCA put the Assessor’s Office in contact with (a) consultant from out-of-state, who has no relationship with Cook County or the agencies that administer the property tax system. For the past several months, the consultant has been engaging with the Assessor, obtaining information and data to conduct a wide-ranging analysis. The Assessor is a separately elected official and the President’s office is not involved in this work, which continues. There is not a hard timeline on completing the analysis, or issuing conclusions or recommendations. That will be determined by the consultant and the Assessor’s Office. From the President’s perspective, the goal, and commitment, is to ‘get it right,’ and ensure that the property tax system, as she has said, is fair and equitable.”

Was the investigative series accurate when it concluded that, after analyzing 12 years and more than 100 million property tax records, the assessor’s office valuations favor wealthier residents? Or is Berrios right, that his work is efficient and the investigative report’s conclusions are not “sufficiently credible?” Is CCA or someone out of state doing the study and for whom?

Seven months after the initial report and two months before the election, what is crystal clear is voters won’t be getting another assessment of the assessor before they cast their ballots. They’ll just have to “get it right” with what’s already been published.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director of the Better Government Association.

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