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How property tax assessments in Cook County favor the rich

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Sun-Times files

Joe Berrios is your friend.

You think you pay too much in property taxes? Joe says you should appeal the assessed market value of your house, as estimated by him, the Cook County assessor. Hundreds of thousands of other homeowners do this every year.

And you know what? More often than not, Joe will reduce your home’s estimated worth and your tax bill will go down.

Gotta love Joe, right?

Except for this.


The way Berrios’ office assesses property values in the first place is out of date, more than a little mysterious, and biased against people who live in poorer neighborhoods, who often are African Americans. His office tends to underestimate the market value of homes in wealthy neighborhoods, keeping down tax bills there, while overestimating the value of homes in poorer parts of the county, inflating tax bills there.

And because Berrios is keen on granting reductions to homeowners who appeal, rather than assess property values in a more consistent and defensible way to begin with, the inequity in valuations between rich and poor neighborhoods grows only worse. The reality is that wealthier homeowners are more likely than lower income homeowners to appeal.

The folks Berrios really is serving are not homeowners, but tax attorneys. All those appeals create big business for lawyers, which is why they pour millions of dollars in campaign contributions into political funds controlled by Berrios, who also is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. In 2015, when property assessment appeals hit a record high, attorneys’ fees from residential appeals totaled roughly $35 million.

All of this is detailed in three superb investigative stories this week in the Chicago Tribune. The Trib lays out the facts, as well as Berrios’ inadequate explanations and excuses.

There is a better way to assess property values. An improved model, available to the assessor for the last seven years, would significantly reduce the regressiveness in the current system — the degree to which assessments shift the tax burden to those who can least afford it. But Berrios has never fully implemented the new model, if at all, and he offered the Tribune no convincing reason for not doing so.

Our guess is it’s politics. A fairer system would immediately hike property value assessments in many suburbs and city neighborhoods (though lowering them in others) and homeowners would scream.

Berrios says anybody is free to file an appeal. He is proud of the many workshops his office holds to show people — of all incomes and backgrounds — how to appeal.

But that misses the point. If Berrios’ office did a more professional job of assessing property values in the first place, adopting the best practices in the industry, appeals would be less necessary and less often successful —  as it should be.