Cook County assessor candidate Forrest Claypool today laid out in specific terms how he said assessment reductions granted by Joseph Berrios and the Board of Review -- most earned by Berrios campaign contributors -- were shifting the tax burden to homeowners and smaller businesses without the same political clout.
Using data available through the Board of Review and the state Board of Elections, along with Freedom of Information Act requests, Claypool presented what he called "the official Cook County map of clout," revealing that of the $6.2 billion in assessment reductions granted by the Board of Review this year, $5.7 billion, or 92 percent, went to commercial properties represented by attorneys who are also contributors to Berrios, Claypool's opponent.
Berrios responded with a statement saying his campaign "has not yet reviewed all of the data, therefore disputing it all is difficult at this point," but added, "Claypool has either fabricated information or made several errors that he should address immediately." Berrios claimed the board allowed $5.8 billion in reductions, not $6.2 billion, and that homeowners filing appeals received adjustments on their assessments 80 percent of the time, with 48 percent of the full dollar value across the county going to the suburbs.
While admitting that he accepts contributions from property-tax attorneys who argue cases before the Board of Review, Berrios has insisted there is no connection with the lowered assessments.
Claypool, a Chicago Democratic commissioner on the Cook County Board, is running for assessor as an independent against Berrios, a Chicago commissioner on the three-man Board of Review and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. Green Party candidate Robert Grota of Chicago and Republican Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall of Evanston are also in the race.
While allowing that the top 15 property-tax law firms dominate the field, "and all of them are contributors" to Berrios, Claypool called that "as blatant a conflict of interest as you can have."
Using this year's record-high multiplier set by the state, and last year's tax rate set by the county clerk who is yet to complete the process this year Claypool estimated the assessment reductions to Berrios contributors were worth $900 million.
"That means millions of dollars in taxes won't be collected from these clout-heavy businesses," Claypool said. "That means millions of dollars in taxes will be shifted onto the backs of homeowners and businesses without clout. That means hundreds of millions of dollars will be added to the tax bills we won't see until after the election."
Tax bills are now expected to be mailed in late November with a due date a month later. Berrios warned early in the process that they could be later than ever, as they are, and blamed the county's new 10-25 ordinance calling for residential properties to be assessed at 10 percent of market value and commercial properties at 25 percent. Yet, retiring Assessor James Houlihan, who backs Claypool, has charged that Berrios deliberately delayed the bills to go out after Tuesday's election.
Claypool pointed to the record-high multiplier of 3.3, which also went up a record amount from the original projection, as "prima facie evidence" of how the Board of Review reductions had altered the tax landscape. The multiplier is meant to make Cook County's assessments even with the rest of the state.
Yet, Berrios blamed the 10-25 ordinance, proposed by Houlihan and co-sponsored by Claypool on the County Board, for creating the record number of appeals that produced the record amount of reductions. "More than 430,000 filed appeals this year because they believed their assessments were inaccurate," Berrios said. "That many people can't be wrong."
Berrios is not the only commissioner granting reductions at the Board of Review at least two of the three have to agree on each case but a Better Government Association report that ran in Chicago magazine this summer found that he had collected $2 million since 2007, "the majority coming from property-tax attorneys," compared with just over $1 million raised by the other two commissioners combined.
According to Board of Elections figures compiled by Claypool for five campaign committees Berrios controls, Berrios has raised $6 million since beginning his political career in the early '80s, more than half of it, $3.3 million, from property-tax attorneys and their firms. That does not count the Cook County Democratic Party funds at his disposal.
Berrios has attacked Claypool for receiving big-money contributions from the likes of the Pritzker family and liberal Chicago Publisher Fred Eychaner. Claypool pooh-poohed that, saying, "You can't compare that to the attorneys whose very likelihood depends on Joe Berrios' goodwill."
Even so, the independent, nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a watchdog agency, put out a report today stating that Claypool led all Cook County candidates with $1.5 million in fundraising for the general election, compared with $850,000 for Berrios. Claypool got $100,000 from Houlihan, while Berrios was loaning his own campaign $100,000 and getting $50,000 from his daughter, Chicago state Rep. Toni Berrios, and $25,000 from Chicago Alderman Ed Burke.
The Claypool campaign mapped out the top 300 reductions this year, and all reductions worth more than $1 million countywide, posting the associated law firm and its Berrios donations for each. The maps are available at www.forrestclaypool.com/cloutonamap.html.