The candidates for Cook County assessor are sharply divided on the merits of a new 10-25 property tax reform ordinance, as well as issues related to ethics and this year's late tax bills.
Board of Review Commissioner Joseph Berrios, the Democratic candidate, blamed the 10-25 ordinance for what he described as the "chaos" that produced second-installment property tax bills that probably won't be delivered until Thanksgiving, well after the Nov. 2 election and months after the supposed deadline.
Former Evanston Township assessor Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall, the Republican candidate, said she agreed, adding, "I think the 10-25 has caused a lot of small businesses to leave the county. I think we have to rethink the whole idea."
Yet Green Party candidate Robert Grota, who works in the assessor's office, said, "It did make market values appear more accurate."
And independent candidate Forrest Claypool, who co-sponsored the reform ordinance backed by retiring Assessor James Houlihan as a Democratic Chicago commissioner on the county board, championed it as something that had brought efficiency, clarity and transparency to the whole assessment process.
They sparred over the 10-25 ordinance and other issues during a recent interview with the Daily Herald editorial board.
The 10-25 ordinance, which took effect this year, removed a complex, multitiered categorization system with a simple, two-part distinction in which residential properties were to be assessed at 10 percent of market value and commercial properties at 25 percent. Previously, homes were assessed at a rate as low as 16 percent and commercial properties at a rate as high as 38 percent.
"Lowering the rate of assessment cannot possibly raise the market value," Claypool said. "This 10-25 was overwhelmingly supported by the Cook County Board. It was not controversial. Mr. Berrios did not object. He did not come down to testify or in any way express concern."
Yet Berrios said it brought on "many, many mistakes, and that's why the Board of Review ended up with 436,000 cases," a record number of assessment appeals. Many were based on the thinking that, even though Houlihan pointed out every homeowner in Cook County received a reduced assessment, the formula worked backward and suggested in some cases an increased market value.
"The assessor took 10-25 and increased market values," Berrios said, "at a time when anyone who could read a newspaper knew market values were declining."
Yet Claypool insisted, "It made it much more transparent for taxpayers to understand what the assessments meant," adding it "had nothing to do with market value. It was a statutory percentage. And the reason it was not controversial is because the overwhelming data showed the truth was the statutory levels that were higher had never been followed by any assessor."
Grota agreed that it actually corrected market prices that had been traditionally undervalued. "The market values were much, much lower than what was real," he said.
Grota's only complaint was "the fact that commercial properties pay two and a half times the amount residentials do as a percentage of market value is not fair." He said Cook should go to the uniform 33 percent assessment rate used by the rest of the state, although he acknowledged that would mean dramatically higher property taxes for homeowners and most likely huge budget cuts in education, which takes the lion's share of the tax bill in most areas.
Claypool said Berrios' objections were part of the "foot-dragging and excuses and finger-pointing" that were "a byproduct of this type of politics." He said Berrios had benefited from the complex old system in which tax attorneys arguing appeals before the county board had given Berrios abundant campaign contributions and won commercial assessment reductions that meant homeowners would naturally get stuck with making up the difference.
"The politicians don't want the tax bills to come out before the election. Mr. Berrios does not want the tax bills to come before the election," Claypool said. "There's no coincidence that tax bills were never going to come before the election. The people are already angry. And when they see the size of the increases that are going to come with the Berrios tax shift, because of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in huge cuts to these clout-heavy commercial interests that's going to raise people's property taxes, that would be like throwing a match on gasoline Nov. 2. So that was never going to happen. ... It was always predictable that these large tax increases were going to be hidden until after the election, because of the electorate's mood."
While acknowledging he accepted campaign contributions from tax attorneys who argue appeals before the Board of Review, Berrios insisted government and media investigations had turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. "Not one newspaper has ever said something was done illegally at the Board of Review when it came to cases," Berrios said.
Yet Claypool pointed to pieces that ran in the Daily Herald last year about how state Rep. Paul Froehlich, a Schaumburg Democrat, had helped earned assessment reductions for a few Northwest suburban properties. Claypool pointed to a Better Government Association investigation that had suggested Berrios staffers had "circumvented the process," he said. The reductions were rescinded, and the Cook County state's attorney's office has since opened an official investigation.
Berrios called the BGA investigation a "witch hunt," adding, "Our office has cooperated with the state's attorney 150 percent." He said he had not disciplined any of the staffers involved. "I don't fire people for allegations, Forrest, like you would probably do," Berrios said. "If they did something wrong, they will be fired and they will be prosecuted under the law. I'm not going to fire someone over an article."