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Burke’s breaks: Embattled alderman got tax cuts on home, office just by asking

Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios granted Ald. Edward M. Burke (above) property tax breaks on his home and ward offices that saved him nearly 6 percent last year despite no evidence the cuts were warranted.

Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios granted Ald. Edward M. Burke (above) property tax breaks on his home and ward offices that saved him nearly 6 percent last year despite no evidence the cuts were warranted. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Ald. Edward M. Burke — who’s in the re-election fight of his life as he faces a criminal charge that he tried to extort a fast-food franchise owner — got property tax breaks on his house and political offices that saved him nearly 6 percent of what he otherwise would have had to pay last year.

How did he do it? Just by asking.

Then-Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios responded by cutting the value his staff had placed on the alderman’s Southwest Side home and 14th Ward offices, saving Burke nearly $1,511.58 in taxes last year, records show.

Usually, people appealing will produce an appraisal to try to persuade the county assessor’s office it overvalued a property. Or they’ll argue comparable properties were given lower values.

The alderman’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, didn’t offer any appraisals when it filed appeals with Berrios in October 2017 on Burke’s home on West 51st Street near Pulaski Road and ward offices in the 2600 block of West 51st.

It offered no comparables on the offices. And the three homes it said were comparable to Burke’s home — all townhomes and much smaller — aren’t comparable at all, according to staffers for Fritz Kaegi, who succeeded Berrios after beating him in last year’s Democratic primary.

Kaegi’s office says there’s nothing in county files to show why his predecessor cut the value of Burke’s properties, lowering his tax bills.

“We don’t have any information about why the previous administration lowered this assessment,” says Scott Smith, Kaegi’s spokesman. “It does not make any sense to us why it was lowered.”

Sources say it wasn’t unusual for former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios (right) to cut assessments even when property owners filed appeals with no evidence to support a reduction. “It does not make any sense to us why it was lowered.” a spokesman for Berrios’ successor Fritz Kaegi (left) says of Ed Burke’s tax breaks.

Sources say it wasn’t unusual for former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios (right) to cut assessments even when property owners filed appeals with no evidence to support a reduction. “It does not make any sense to us why it was lowered,” a spokesman for Berrios’ successor Fritz Kaegi (left) says of Ed Burke’s tax breaks. | Sun-Times files

Thomas Jaconetty, Berrios’ former top deputy, says he can’t explain why Burke got the breaks.

“I’m no longer in the office, so I no longer have access to the records,” Jaconetty says. “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Burke also had sought tax breaks on his home and office the two previous years, but Berrios said no.

Burke is facing an increase in taxes on his home this summer, when the next property tax bills are calculated and mailed to Cook County property owners, because the assessor’s office has reevaluated the property, determining it’s worth $860,510, up from $730,510. But he’s likely to get a further tax cut on his ward office because the assessor has lowered its estimation of the value of that building, to $368,777 from $462,470.

Burke — whose firm specializes in property tax appeals — couldn’t be reached.

His law firm filed the appeals in October 2017. That was during the period FBI agents were secretly recording his cellphone calls — between the spring of 2017 and November 2018, when they raided his City Hall and ward offices.

When Burke filed the appeal on his home, he cited what he called three comparable properties — neighboring townhouses that are less than half the size of his three-story, 5,619-square-foot home, which towers above every other home in the neighborhood.

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The alderman and his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, often host political functions there.

Early last year, the Burkes held a fundraiser there for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

And Justice Burke has performed several marriage ceremonies there — including the December 2011 wedding of then-state Rep. Susana Mendoza, who’s now state comptroller and running for mayor. The judge also officiated there for the June 2013 wedding of Kyla McCarthy, daughter of then-police Supt. Garry McCarthy, another mayoral candidate. McCarthy says the wedding was arranged by the family of his late son-in-law Timothy Smithe Jr., whose family owns the Walter E. Smithe furniture stores.

Berrios initially pegged Burke’s home’s value at $781,070, then lowered it without explanation to $730,510, records show. That 7 percent reduction saved Burke $1,089 in taxes, leaving him with a bill of $14,418 last year.

For years, Burke has gotten a significant tax break on his two-story ward office because the storefront building has apartments upstairs. So it’s classified as residential property, rather than commercial. That reduces the tax bill by 60 percent.

Berrios decided that the office building had a value of $482,100. But, after Burke filed an appeal with the assessor, he lowered that by about 4 percent, to $462,470. That saved the alderman $422.56, leaving him with a $9,955.59 tax bill.

Sources say it wasn’t unusual for Berrios to cut assessments even when property owners, typically homeowners, filed appeals without offering any evidence to support a reduction.

Burke already was scrambling to keep the office he’s held for a record 50 years when federal prosecutors announced Jan. 3 that they had charged him with attempted extortion. He’s accused of trying to get business for his law firm from a Burger King franchise owner trying to get city permits to remodel a restaurant in the alderman’s ward.

The alderman also is accused of leaning on the restaurant owner to contribute $10,000 to Preckwinkle’s campaign for county board president, money she later returned.

Burke’s attorney Charles Sklarsky has said the alderman didn’t commit any crime.

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