First, let's get the bad news out of the way: property taxes are going up.
Now the good news: there are three candidates for Cook County Assessor running in the February 2 Democratic primary—Robert Shaw, Joe Berrios, and Raymond Figueroa—who say they're going to do something about it.
Why are you laughing?
Oh yeah, I know—you've heard it all before and who you elect doesn't seem to make a damn bit of difference. Property taxes keep going up even though officials from Mayor Daley to county board president Todd Stroger to house speaker Michael Madigan say they're doing what they can to keep them down.
Still, you should pay attention to the assessor's race: when they do go up, the person who fills the office has a huge say in how much you'll pay.
As I've explained before, it's best to think of the tax levy—how much the city, county, schools, and other taxing bodies require in property taxes—as a big barrel that has to be filled with water. Daley, Stroger, and other leaders aren't particularly concerned with who puts how much water into the barrel as long as it gets filled. To determine where it all comes from, the county clerk computes tax rates based on how much the government bodies need and how much property is available to tax.
Home owners' property tax bills are then determined by adjusting the value of the home according to a few variables too complicated to explain here, then multiplying the tax rate by this adjusted value. One of those variables is something called the homeowner's exemption, which allows homeowners to deduct a certain amount—currently as much as $20,000—from that value.
If what's left—the amount you pay taxes on—is $100,000 and the tax rate is 5 percent, the homeowner's exemption means you'll pay $4,000 instead of $5,000.
But you paying less taxes doesn't mean the local taxing bodies need less money. The homeowner's exemption essentially shifts more of the burden of filling the barrel from homeowners to commercial and industrial property owners (and indirectly to their tenants, including those who rent in large apartment complexes). Decreasing the homeowner's exemption shifts it back.
Cook County assessor Jim Houlihan has consistently argued that homeowners need a break, and that without one many could be forced to sell their property. Soon after he was first elected in 1998 he began to champion an increase in the exemption, then $4,500, and eventually he managed to maneuver Daley and Madigan into endorsing various versions of the idea—after all, they didn't want to look like the bad guys.
By law, though, the exemption is due to fall from $20,000 to $6,000 this year. Though other variables are changing that will ease the transition for some homeowners, for most this will still mean an increase in property taxes.
And Houlihan is retiring. That means there will be no powerful politician to force Madigan or Daley to support raising the exemption.
And what does that mean? Well, I'll use myself as an example: the annual tax bill on my north-side house will probably rise by at least $2,000. That's a big chunk of change in the middle of a recession. "I told you this was going to happen," says Barb Head, founder of the local Tax Reform Action Coalition. "And guess what? Nobody is doing anything about it. There's a lot of people looking for our vote, but not many of them have stepped up to the plate."
Which brings us to the Democratic primary to replace Houlihan.
You've got three choices. One of them is former Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw. He's one of my favorite political characters—I could fill your ear for hours with colorful Shaw stories. But he's clearly running an uphill campaign. He doesn't have a Web site; hell, he doesn't even have a campaign office or phone. If you want to try to reach him, you have to call the city hall in south suburban Dolton, where he's the inspector general. When I did, the woman who answered told me Shaw was dead. I explained to her that he was not only very much alive—it was his twin brother, William, who died last year—but running for office. She then transferred me to the Dolton mayor's office, where I left a message that was returned two days later by a woman who apologized and said she'd initially written down the wrong number.
Eventually I did reach Shaw, who told me that even though he's been a regular Democrat his whole life he's willing to lead a rebellion against Madigan if that's what it takes to increase the exemption. "I understand taxes and I've been around a little while," he says. He suggests that he could make some power plays to force Madigan's hand. "There are African-American legislators down there [in Springfield]—Madigan doesn't have to be speaker."
The other candidates are Joe Berrios and Raymond Figueroa, two very different politicians who have been on opposing sides of political battles since the 1970s. Berrios started off as a precinct captain in the 31st Ward organization of Richard J. Daley's chief City Council ally, Tom Keane, which commanded a formidable patronage army of city, county, and state workers.
Figueroa worked against the Machine. As he tells it, Keane himself once gave him a compliment for getting out the vote against him. "I beat his top precinct captain in the fourth precinct of the 31st Ward," says Figueroa. "Keane told me, 'Mr. Figueroa, you're good, but you can't beat me with one precinct.'"
In the Council Wars of the 1980s, when the City Council split along racial lines, Figueroa sided with Mayor Harold Washington; Berrios, then the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, sided with Washington's nemesis, Alderman Ed Vrdolyak. In 1987 Figueroa, with Washington's backing, beat Berrios's candidate for alderman. A year later Figueroa beat Berrios for committeeman. In 1991 Figueroa decided not to run for reelection as alderman, and he left the committeeman's job the following year. He eventually became a Cook County judge and now has a law practice in Humboldt Park. Berrios, meanwhile, regained his old committeeman's seat when Figueroa left, and in 2009 he was elected chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Since 1988 Berrios has also been a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, the three-person body that hears property tax appeals. Plus he's a lobbyist who represents clients like the video poker industry in Springfield. While he was on the Board of Review he took campaign contributions from the lawyers whose job it was to argue appeals that he voted on. I know, you're shocked, but that sort of thing is SOP: even Houlihan, who's viewed as a good-government type, takes campaign contributions from lawyers who come before his office.
By his own admission, Berrios stayed out of Houlihan's struggles with Daley and Madigan to get the homeowner's exemption increased. "I supported it and I tried to get involved, but Houlihan didn't want me," says Berrios. "That was a personal fight between Houlihan and Madigan."
But Houlihan says he actively encouraged Berrios to join his crusade. "I asked Joe to help," he says. "I asked everyone to help."
As assessor, Berrios says, he'll aggressively lobby his pals in the Democratic Party—meaning Madigan and Daley—to support a hike in the exemption before the big tax bills come out next fall.
"I've already talked to Mayor Daley," he says.
You talked to the mayor himself?
"No, but the mayor's people."
Figueroa sneers at the suggestion that Berrios has the will or the way to successfully get Madigan or Daley to sign on.
"Berrios does what they tell him—they don't do what he tells them," says Figueroa. "Berrios lobbies Madigan for video poker machines, but he doesn't lobby his friend the speaker for the taxpayers."
As assessor, Figueroa says he'd take a caravan of people to Springfield to get state leaders to hike the exemption. "If elected, I will challenge Mr. Madigan—I will call him out," says Figueroa.
So there it is, folks. You can vote for the cage rattler, the dealmaker, or the dealmaker who says he'll be a cage rattler. The choice is yours.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.