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Cook County property tax system unfair and needs fixing, review concludes

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios at a news conference he called in June 2017 to address allegations about property assessment. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County’s property tax system tends to give greater breaks to the owners of more expensive homes than it does to owners of lower-value homes — an assessment process that is “more variable and more regressive” compared to industry standards, an independent review has found.

Commissioned last July by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Assessor Joseph Berrios, the review by the Civic Consulting Alliance, which has worked with the county before, analyzed more than one million residential properties countywide.

The study “found that the residential assessment system is more variable and more regressive than agreed upon industry standards, causing a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”

In Chicago, for example, the owner of a home valued at $600,000 tends to pay a “24 percent lower effective tax rate than the owner of a $300,000 home,” according to the analysis.

Berrios, who is facing a stiff Democratic primary challenge, has maintained that his office’s approach to assessing property values is sound. If people feel they’re being taxed too much they should appeal, he has said.

But that appellate process is part of the problem, the alliance’s review found. Cook County has 20 times more assessment appeals filed than in “benchmark jurisdictions,” which include Johnson County in Kansas and Maricopa County in Arizona.

From 2014 to 2016, the owners of 20 to 30 percent of all properties countywide appealed their property assessments, with the owners of higher-value homes appealing at much higher rates than owners of lower-value homes.

Berrios’ decades-long tenure as a member of the county’s board of review and seven-year stint as assessor has prompted critics to question what he knew about the assessment system and why he didn’t previously act to fix it.

He also has been criticized for his ties to law firms that regularly file assessment appeals with his office. Two of those firms are run by two of the state’s most powerful politicians: Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, and Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th). As Chicago Democratic committeemen, both Madigan and Burke helped elect Berrios to a key political post: chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

On Thursday, Berrios said that his office will work to correct the property tax problems.

“I’ve made a commitment to change whatever needs to be changed in order to make assessments as proper as possible because no matter what system you use you’re never going to get 100 percent conformity,” Berrios said. “We are making a commitment to make this system better.”

Preckwinkle said Thursday the problems with the assessment process are roughly 40 years old and the review is a step in modernizing and integrating technology used by the board of review, the assessor’s office and other county departments to make the process more fair.

“Everyone’s goal is a fair and equitable property tax system,” Preckwinkle said. “We’re dealing with issues that are in some cases decades old and have lingered through many assessors.”

Fritz Kaegi, who is challenging Berrios in the Democratic primary for assessor, said the report is the latest in a “mountain of expert analysis” that shows “Berrios has failed the taxpayers of Cook County.

“Berrios campaigned on a promise to fix property tax regressivity in 2010 — but during his tenure as assessor, he has focused on filling his own campaign coffers and serving the interests of clouted property tax attorneys and wealthy property owners,” Kaegi said in a statement. “Under Joe Berrios, wide swaths of the South Side, West Side and Southland have suffered greatly under a property tax assessment system that leads to tremendous inequity.”

Aneel Chablani, advocacy director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said the committee is “pleased” with the findings. Chablani is a lawyer representing the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in a lawsuit they filed in December.

“The report confirms what we have alleged and what has been found in other reports, but we maintain that it won’t produce the changes needed,” Chablani said. “We need court oversight and an independent monitor to implement reforms.”

There is “substantial room” for improving the assessment model, the report found. The Civic Consulting Alliance is continuing its review, and now will focus on helping develop solutions. No timeline was given for when changes will be implemented.