The white knight in this morality tale is Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool, a lifelong Democrat who's running as an independent. And the force for evil is Joe Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and a 22-year commissioner of the Board of Review, the three-person body that hears property tax appeals.
But it's all a little more complicated than that.
Let's start with the obvious question: Why should you, the average citizen, care about this relatively obscure office?
For one thing, the assessor plays a major role in determining how much you pay in property taxes. And by you I mean everyone who pays for a place to live—including renters, most of whom have never even seen a property tax bill but pay property tax hikes for their landlords in the form of higher rents.
The property tax is determined in large part by the assessed value of the property—a figure different from the market value, assigned by the assessor's office. The higher your property's assessed value, generally the more you pay in taxes.
The assessor determines property values in part by tracking property sales. It's a monumental task, prone to error, since there are more than 1.3 million residential parcels in the county. If your property is assessed higher than it should be, you pay more than you should in property taxes. If your property is assessed too low, you get a break. But it's not just computers blindly crunching numbers that determine a property's value. Human beings have their fingers on the scale.
If you think your property has been assessed too high, you can appeal to the assessor. If you still think it's too high after the assessor rules, you can appeal to the Board of Review—on which Berrios has sat since 1988.
Each year the Board of Review hears more than 420,000 appeals, and lowers assessments in 70 percent of the cases, Berrios says. That means the parcel owners who don't appeal are effectively subsidizing the tax breaks of the people who do.
There's a cottage industry of property tax lawyers—if you own property, you've probably received solicitation letters from some of them—who appeal cases before the assessor and the board. If you don't want to bother filling out appeal forms or searching the assessor's website to see how comparable homes in your neighborhood are assessed, you hire one of these lawyers to do the legwork and let him keep a portion of what you save in taxes.
Over the years, Berrios has received millions in political contributions, most of them from the lawyers and law firms who bring cases before the board. He's also a Springfield lobbyist, advocating for clients before state senate president John Cullerton and house speaker Michael Madigan. Cullerton and Madigan, as it happens, are key members of law firms that represent owners of large commercial properties in appeals before the Board of Review.
So Berrios lobbies Cullerton and Madigan for legislation on behalf of his clients. And Cullerton and Madigan petition Berrios for property tax breaks on behalf of their clients. And everybody wins—except those who don't know how to work the system.
For the full bill of complaints against Berrios, I recommend the David Bernstein/Better Government Association investigation that ran in the October issue of Chicago Magazine. Or you might want to read some of my old stories on Berrios on our website.
If you want to change this system—at least incrementally—yeah, you probably should vote for Claypool. A former chief of staff to Mayor Daley, he's made a name for himself blasting the Strogers—first the father, John, and then the son, Todd—over his eight years as a commissioner on the county board. Claypool does no lobbying, and says he won't take campaign contributions from property tax lawyers. He decided to run as an independent after Berrios won the Democratic primary in February. "I didn't want his pay-to-play politics in the assessor's office," he tells me. (The incumbent assessor, Jim Houlihan, is retiring; he backs Claypool.)
Berrios says Claypool's a hypocrite who takes money from the very wealthy, plenty of whom petition the assessor or review board for reductions. In fact, there's a whole website dedicated to the subject, victimsofjoeberrios.com. Though Berrios claims he doesn't know who operates the site (it's registered to Domains by Proxy Inc.), he managed to refer me to it three times in the course of a recent phone interview.
"Forrest takes contributions from rich people—he doesn't take it from their attorneys," says Berrios. "He's getting it direct— cutting out the middle man."
Claypool acknowledges that he's gotten some huge contributions. The two largest were $150,000 each from commodities trader Richard Dennis and money manager Richard Driehaus. "Virtually every donor is a property owner who might file an appeal," he says. "It's ridiculous to argue that's comparable to getting millions of dollars from people whose livelihood depends on your judgment."
As for lowering assessments on major downtown commercial properties represented by lawyers like Madigan and Cullerton, Berrios counters that he also lowers the assessments of thousands of ordinary property owners.
"The problem is that Houlihan is overassessing property owners," says Berrios. "If we have an effective assessor we wouldn't have to file so many cases before the Board of Review."
There's another thing to keep in mind as you prepare to cast your vote. The larger problem—which eclipses the assessor's race—has to do with Illinois's overdependence on property taxes, particularly for funding education. In Chicago roughly half of property taxes go to the public schools. It's well over 60 percent in many of the suburbs, like Evanston and Wilmette.
But to cut the amount people pay in property taxes we'll either have to cut the amount government spends or hike the state income tax.
The last mainstream politician to strongly endorse such a "tax swap"—boosting income taxes and cutting property taxes—was Dawn Clark Netsch, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1994. Her Republican opponent, incumbent Governor Jim Edgar, blasted her as a tax-and-spend liberal and trounced her at the polls.
So don't kid yourself into thinking the outcome of this race will reduce the amount you pay in property taxes. It'll take a revolution, not a makeover, to do that.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.