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Berrios steps into fray between Emanuel, Preckwinkle on tax plan

Thursday, October 15, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios is weighing in on a dispute over a key element of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed 2016 budget, and while City Hall is trying to pump up the news, it is, in fact, quite mixed for the mayor.

In a phone interview today, Berrios said that "personally, I believe" it is technically possible to reprogram aging county computers to implement the expanded homestead exemption that Emanuel wants. "This is the 21st century," even if the county's mainframe computer is programmed in the outmoded COBOL language, he said.

Mayoral aides applauded that, because yesterday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said a technical tweak is not possible, and County Treasurer Maria Pappas said it "might" be possible only if outside computer experts came up with what could be an expensive solution.

However, Berrios added a lot of strings that definitely qualified his backing for the mayor's position.

For one, any reprogramming or other technical computer fix would have to be in place before year-end, "probably by around Dec. 1," Berrios said. Any delay beyond that could postpone the issuance of next year's tax bills, forcing local governments to borrow money to tide them over. "I'm not going to be responsible for that," he said.

Beyond that, the county will have to "hire people to reconstitute the computer system," most likely outsiders, Berrios said.

The assessor—"I'm not a computer expert"—said he didn't know how many people or how much money was needed, or whether it all can be accomplished by Dec. 1. And the work can't really get underway until Emanuel either introduces his plan in Springfield or at least "gives me a copy of the final bill."

Either way, Berrios said, "It's a question of who would pay for (reworking county computers). I think the city would and I think they will." And, he added, if a law is adopted ordering him to implement the Emanuel plan, he will do so—as soon as he can.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kelly Quinn, who earlier expressed "confidence" that this all could be accomplished, declined to comment immediately on whether the city is prepared to pay the cost or has drafted a final bill.

Quinn now says Pappas has two consultants aboard ready to work on the problem. The county treasurer was not immediately available for comment.

The contretemps counts because the mayor's plan would exempt owners of homes worth up to $250,000 from paying any of his proposed $588 million property tax hike and would give a lesser break to those with more expensive homes. That would provide political cover to aldermen who don't want to offend homeowners but who are being pushed by the mayor to raise taxes to pay police and fire pensions and to pay for Chicago Public Schools construction projects.

Aldermen are scheduled to vote Oct. 28.

Passage of the legislation is quite uncertain, with Gov. Bruce Rauner stopping just short of vowing to veto the measure. But Berrios said some work on a possible computer fix could begin soon.

County technical and tax officials are to meet tomorrow to try to get some answers. Berrios' office assesses property and would have to issue new valuations for city property under Emanuel's plan, which would cover taxes owed to the city and CPS, but not the county, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and suburban units of government. The county clerk prepares the actual levies, and Pappas is in charge of sending out bills and collecting the money.

 



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