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Blockbuster report: How Cook County tax system shafts the little guy

Thursday, February 15, 2018
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

In a blockbuster report with huge political implications, an outside consultant concluded that Cook County's residential property tax system is stacked against the little guy, with assessments far more variable and "much more regressive" than they should be, especially in the city of Chicago. 

 The problem starts with proposed assessments issued by Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, and actually gets worse as some homeowners, generally those well-off enough to hire a lawyer, appeal to the Board of Review. And in the end, the owners of relatively low-priced homes, many of them African-American and Latino, end up paying more than they should, with a relative break given to owners of more expensive properties, many of them owned by whites. The report, released today, comes from the Civic Consulting Alliance, a unit of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. It was commissioned by Berrios and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle after the Chicago Tribune reported on suspected bias against minority groups in the residential assessment system. The report's results have been eagerly awaited in a year in which the local property tax system has become a major issue not only in Berrios' re-election race but in the contests for the Democratic and Republican nominations for governor.? (Read the report below.) 

 The tax system raises $5.9 billion a year just in Chicago proper. Now that it's here, the report could set off a political tidal wave. Berrios, in a press briefing on the report, insisted that the flaws in the county system are not his fault, but promised to work hard to fix them. "This system has been around for 40 years and I have only been the assessor for seven," he said. "My first priority was to get the tax bills out on time . . . (but), we are working hard to correct whatever we need to correct." 

 A similar message came from Preckwinkle. "Everyone's goal is a fair and equitable tax system," she said. "I believe this puts us on the right path." The study is of 1 million single-family homes and does not include condominiums. Nor does it include commercial property, but Berrios said he would ask the alliance to do a follow-up study on whether commercial rates are fair 

 The report does praise Berrios and other officials for reforms that now get tax bills out on time, avoiding the delays and borrowing costs for local governments that were typical in the past. But that's about the only good news for Berrios and the board in a report whose bottom line is: "Bringing the system into compliance with industry standards will require fundamental changes in modeling, review processes, data collection, and a shift away from reliance on appeals." If the report is accurate, it's striking how far the system is from performing as it should. For instance, by the coefficient of dispersion (COD) measure used by assessors, most homes should be valued within 5 percent to 15 percent of their true market value. In the county as a whole, that standard barely has been met, the report found. But in Chicago, the average COD was 25—almost five times the low end of the recommended variability range.


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When examined by township, the CODs were much worse.

In the South township of the city, the average COD found was 21. In Hyde Park Township, it was 30; in Lake Township on the West Side, 44; and in south suburban Calumet, almost 50. The population in all of those is predominantly black.

Joe Berrios
Joe Berrios

In comparison, the CODs in the north lakefront's North and Lake View Township were 13 and 11, respectively. And in suburban Elk Grove, Palatine and Orland, the CODs all were 8 or less.

The alliance found similar results by two other measures, known as price-related differential and price-related bias, with Chicago's error rate on the latter five times the industry standard.

The alliance also found one other troubling thing: By all three standards, results got worse after they left Berrios' hands and moved to the Board of Review.

The alliance is still working on its final list of proposals to fix this, but said the key is to get accurate assessments to start from the assessor, so that owners don't have any incentive to roll the dice and appeal to the board, which grants reductions in up to 64 percent of the cases that come before it.

Also needed, it says, are better IT, improved staffing and fixes in the core model that Berrios uses to make his assessments.

I'll add in some political reaction later. You can expect a lot.

Summary Results of Phase 2

4:30 P.M. UPDATE:

It has begun. From a spokesman for Gov. Bruce Rauner:

"The Cook County property tax system is hurting the middle class and low-income people because it's corrupt to its core. Government leaders and the politically-connected like (House Speaker Mike) Madigan, Berrios, and (J.B.) Pritzker are benefiting despite their claims to stand up for those who don't have a voice. Governor Rauner is fighting to end this corruption and return power to the people of Illinois."

Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, says he's read enough.

“Despite a prescribed pathway to fairness, under Assessor Berrios, the Office has consistently and systematically over taxed poor and working families in Cook County – particularly those on Chicago's South and West Sides and in the already ailing south suburbs,” Beals says. He's endorsing Berrios' primary re-election foe, Fritz Kaegi.

Says Chris Kennedy in a statement, “Today's report proves that Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios knowingly gutted the economic future of homeowners, particularly in African-American and Latino communities, while our schools are underfunded, so that his wealthy and well-connected friends could save money. He's been unapologetic and shameless throughout this investigation. . . .I called on Joe Berrios to resign months ago and today I renew that call. J.B. Pritzker took 48 hours to criticize the way Speaker Madigan handled a sexual harassment complaint and has been silent for months on Joe Berrios' corrupt property tax system. With the evidence outlined in today's study, he has no choice but to denounce Berrios and join my call for him to resign.”

5:30 P.M. UPDATE:

Two more bits of reaction from gubernatorial candidates, strikingly different in tone.

Says Daniel Biss, "Middle-class families like mine don’t need a study or high-priced consultant to tell us property taxes are stacked against us . . . We all understand that the system is rigged, but that’s where the similarities end: I have a personal stake in fixing the system while my opponents benefit from its continuation. That’s why I’ve worked with ordinary homeowners, advocacy groups, and my colleagues in the legislature to find ways to root our corruption and hold wealthy homeowners accountable for paying their fair share.”

From J.B. Pritzker’s spokeswoman, “As J.B. has said before, our property tax system is seriously flawed, disproportionately harming people who live in minority and low-income communities. We need to reform our property tax system so that it’s accurate and equitable. Counties should use the latest technology and best practices so that we reduce our reliance on the appeals process by getting it right the first time. And we need to address the underlying issue of how we can bring property taxes down, and that’s by funding our schools at the state level with a progressive income tax.”

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