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posted: 2/2/2018 1:00 AM

Assessor's lawsuit is mockery of campaign finance fairness

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  • Nathaniel Hamilton

    Nathaniel Hamilton

 
By Nathaniel Hamilton
Guest columnist

Taxpayers in Cook County pay for a lot. Whether it's expensive sales taxes, the former soda tax, liquor tax, gas tax or anything else with a steeper price tag in Cook than surrounding areas or neighbor states, the bill is high.

But thanks to Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios' office, Cook County taxpayers have to pay for one more thing: the defense of Cook County's corrupt property tax system.

For months, Assessor Berrios has been criticized for his role in Cook County's complex, secretive and unfair property tax assessment system that benefits wealthier residents and businesses at the expense of lower-income homeowners and small business owners.

Residents, business owners, elected officials and many Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have called for drastic changes to the county's property tax system to make it more fair and transparent. So in response to the parade of public pressure for reform, Assessor Berrios announced a complete, transparent overhaul for how property taxes are assessed and appealed in Cook County.

Just kidding. This is Illinois, remember?

Last week, Berrios' office announced they are filing a lawsuit to allow Berrios to accept more money from property tax lawyers and law firms that the assessor's office deals with directly for property tax appeals. Berrios is also trying to challenge the $41,000 fine he received from the Cook County Board of Ethics for illegally accepting campaign cash from property tax attorneys that went over the limits on campaign donations from people doing business with the county.

In short, Assessor Berrios -- who has received hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from property tax attorneys -- is trying to make the case for why he should be allowed to accept even more political money from people and firms he directly works with as assessor.

And who's footing the bill for Berrios' campaign for more tax attorney cash? Taxpayers, of course.

This isn't the first time that Berrios' office has used tax dollars to fight against taxpayer interests. For three years, starting in 2013, Berrios used tax dollars to wage a legal battle to try to avoid oversight of his office. The case stemmed from a Cook County inspector general's investigation over allegations that an assessor's office employee was granted illegal property tax breaks. Berrios refused to cooperate with the investigation and tried to argue that his office wasn't even subject to oversight from the IG's office.

Finally, in 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court ended the debate and ruled that the Cook County Assessor's Office is indeed under the jurisdiction of the Cook County inspector general. It's unclear how much that legal fight from Berrios cost taxpayers, but it's most certainly in the tens of thousands.

Most taxpayers would be hard pressed to think of legitimate reasons why any tax dollars from cash-strapped Cook County should be spent trying to exempt government offices from ethical oversight or fight legal battles to channel politicians more campaign cash from political insiders.

As head of the Cook County Democratic Party and with a campaign fund holding more than $1 million, Berrios is hardly short on resources. If ensuring Berrios can take more money from property tax attorneys is truly a priority of his office -- which it shouldn't be -- he could easily pay for these battles himself.

If Assessor Berrios values corruption-free and fair government systems for Cook County residents, then he should end his perennial fight to receive more campaign money from people and firms with clear conflicts of interest.

And if Assessor Berrios values any taxpayer interests, he needs to stop using tax dollars to wage legal battles against them.

Nathaniel Hamilton is director of marketing and communications for Project Six, a nonprofit government watchdog agency researching and investigating government corruption and tax dollar waste.

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