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Toni Preckwinkle says she stands by Joe Berrios

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her challenger in the Democratic primary, Bob Fioretti, met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is standing by County Assessor Joe Berrios even though the property tax assessment system the assessor oversees has been found to be discriminatory against lower income minority homeowners.

In terms of changes to the property tax assessment system, Preckwinkle on Friday said the problems with the assessment system are at least 40 years old, predating Berrios’ time in office, and try as she might, she can’t control the actions of other elected county officials.

“One of the challenges of governing Cook County is that we have 11 separately elected officials,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times editorial board that was also attended by former Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), her challenger in the upcoming elections.

“While I’m responsible for the executive budget and we have some insight into what folks are doing as a result of the county board of commissioners mandated performance management system …ultimately they’re responsible for managing their office.”

Fioretti said that shirking the blame won’t help fix a “corrupt, discriminatory property tax system.”

“It’s somebody else’s fault all the time,” Fioretti said.

An independent review by the Civic Consulting Alliance of the property tax assessment system in the county was released last Thursday, affirming an analysis conducted by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica that found the system transfers wealth from low income homeowners in largely minority areas to higher income homeowners.

Berrios has said that if people feel they’re being taxed too much, they should appeal — which is a problem, according to the alliance’s report. That creates a conflict of interest for Berrios, who has received contributions from property tax appeal lawyers and who has given a top job to a family member of a top tax appeal lawyer.

“The report was a gimmick that didn’t address the central, core issues,” Fioretti said. “Yes it dealt with residential, but it didn’t deal with commercial or industrial [assessments], which impact it more.”

When asked if there should be a law stopping elected officials from being property tax appeal lawyers or lobbyists, Preckwinkle said, “I believe you should be a full time elected official,” and anything else is a potential conflict, but stopped short of saying the county, or Springfield, should draft legislature to stop elected officials from holding other jobs.

Prominent appeal lawyers include Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and Speaker Michael Madigan.

“We have some of the strictest ethics laws in the country and what they say is anyone who does business with the county can only contribute $750,” Preckwinkle added. “There are no such limits at the state, or at the city. We have very strict laws…what you’re saying is that certain categories of people who do business with the county shouldn’t be able to contribute at all? That’s a difficult proposition to put forward.”

Fioretti, who is also a lawyer, said “if the county can’t pass an ordinance saying elected officials shouldn’t be property tax lawyers” then he doesn’t know who could.

It’s a conflict of interest, he said, especially when voting on budgets, and it’s time for a “complete overhaul.”