Too cozy for taxpayers

By The Daily Herald Editorial Board

There would seem to be a natural adversarial relationship between someone who assesses the value of property for local governments and someone who challenges those assessments for a living. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Ela Township.

There, Bonnie Barrington runs her business, Suburban Appeal Inc., out of the Lake Zurich home she shares with her husband, Township Assessor John Barrington. Some of her clients are Ela Township residents, who hire her to help them reduce their assessment and the tax bite that goes with it.

If you’re a property owner in Ela Township struggling to pay your tax bill, you might think that’s a cozy business relationship. Government watchdogs and Lake County officials think so, too. The county has investigated and found nothing illegal, but was concerned enough to implement a special safeguard.

We, too, are uneasy about any possible conflict of interest, real or perceived. We urge county officials to keep a watchful eye on Ela Township cases handled by Suburban Appeal and add safeguards as needed. But we think there’s also something Bonnie Barrington can do to help — stop accepting Ela Township clients.

That would eliminate any hint of trouble and ease the minds of county government officials and local residents that no conflict exists.

Bonnie Barrington started Suburban Appeal in March 2010, about two months after her husband started as Ela Township assessor. Similar to other companies, Suburban Appeal bills clients 25 percent of the tax savings if an assessment is reduced.

Her business had about 30 Ela cases on the Lake County Board of Review schedule in January. John Barrington told the Daily Herald’s Bob Susnjara that he represents the best interests of township residents. He said he and his wife worked in the property valuation business before he landed the township job.

However, David Morrison, deputy director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said several potential pitfalls exist, including the possibility that Suburban Appeal could gain an advance look at assessments, although no such claims have been made so far.

The relationship prompted Lake County’s chief assessment office last year to seek a legal opinion. Attorneys reviewed Suburban Appeal’s handling of Ela cases and found them to be legal.

Still, a special safeguard was put in place to prohibit John Barrington’s office from directly recommending value reduction changes for his wife’s clients. A formal public hearing is required.

That underscores the uneasiness officials have with the Barringtons’ business relationship, and the need for Bonnie Barrington to take steps to eliminate any perception of a conflict.