Study: Cook County assessments shift wealth from poor to rich

Fundamental changes in the Cook County assessor's office are needed to end the transfer of wealth from poorer to richer homeowners and reduce an "unusually high number of appeals," according to an independent study released Thursday.

Chicago-based Civic Consulting Alliance, a nonpartisan group, produced the report after a four-month study requested by Assessor Joseph Berrios and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Bringing the system into compliance with industry standards will require fundamental changes in modeling, review processes and data collection and a shift away from reliance on appeals, according to the report. Employee workshops for the needed improvements already have started.

The report harshly criticized the high number of appeals in the county.

"One striking feature of the Cook County system is its unusually high number of appeals when compared to other jurisdictions in the United States and abroad," the study says. "While every local jurisdiction has its own regulatory framework and mindsets that impact the number of appeals, the levels of appeals in Cook County are very high and increase regressivity."

From 2014 to 2016, 20 percent to 30 percent of valuations were appealed with the assessor's office, Board of Review or both.

"Cook County relies much more on appeals than other assessment jurisdictions," the study says. "For Cook County, the appeal levels are more than 20 times higher than benchmark jurisdictions."

Valuations matter because if properties are not assessed uniformly, some owners pay more than their fair share of property taxes and some pay correspondingly less, the report says. For example, if low-value homes are overvalued and high-value homes are undervalued, those with lower-value homes pay more than their fair share and those with higher-value homes pay less.

In a statement issued later Thursday, Berrios blamed systematic problems that have existed for at least 40 years and that he's been trying to fix. The county is investing heavily in upgrading technology to modernize a 1970s-era system, he said.

"As I have said from the start of the process, my priority is to ensure that the assessment system is fair and equitable for every Cook County resident," said Berrios, a Chicago resident. "I am committed to implementing all of the solutions identified as part of the analysis."

Fritz Kaegi, an Oak Park asset manager challenging Berrios in the Democratic primary, said this week inaccurate property valuations have led to the high number of appeals bogging down the office.

In another development Thursday, Cook County Electoral Board members ruled assessor candidate Andrea Raila should be removed from the Democratic primary ballot due to faulty nominating petitions.

Raila, a property tax analyst from Chicago, was found to not have enough valid signatures on the nominating petitions. Kaegi supporters filed objections to Raila's petitions, which a hearing officer found showed a pattern of fraud.

She said she will challenge the finding in court, calling the ruling "an embarrassment to the democratic process" and "an example of the typical good ole boys sticking together."

"The decision amplifies the disenfranchisement of women and minorities who are working so hard to gain access to the democratic process," Raila said in a statement. "It is unAmerican."

Fritz Kaegi
Andrea Raila
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