August 26, 2009


It's often said that it ain't over until it's over. The 2010 contest to replace retiring Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan is over. His successor will be Democrat Joe Berrios, a Board of Review commissioner known fondly as "Mr. Moneybags."

Already a political powerhouse, Berrios, age 57, is poised to become a superstar. He's the Cook County Democratic chairman and the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, and he has been on the Board of Review since 1988, where the assessor's assessed valuations can be sliced. He has $846,883 in his campaign account, and he has raised $3,282,859 since Jan. 1, 2007. As the assessor, Berrios can rake in $2 million a year.

No credible opponent is challenging Berrios. Bill Shaw, a former Board of Review commissioner, has announced, and Houlihan's chief deputy assessor, Mike Stone, may run. Both would lose.

It's also said that one should be careful what one wishes for, since you might get it. Berrios, who has long dreamed of being the assessor, will need the proverbial Wisdom of Solomon during his term. Quite succinctly, his looming problem is that property values are plummeting while government spending is increasing. Therefore, property taxes will not decrease.

"Try explaining that to property owners," observed one Northwest Side Democratic politician. "That's why Houlihan quit. Berrios was going to challenge him in the primary and blast him for not reducing property taxes. (Houlihan) would have lost. In 2014 Joe will have the same problem."

Unless, of course, the foundering real estate market rebounds significantly. At present, according to an August report by First American CoreLogic, more than 30 percent of the Chicago-area single-family homes have mortgage debt that exceeds value. Three years ago that percentage was zero. According to the Illinois Association of Realtors, the median sale price of Chicago homes dropped from $255,000 in 2008 to $213,500 in 2009. And, according to a University of Utah study, nationwide home ownership, due largely to the foreclosure epidemic, has declined by 2 percent, to 67.4 percent, and is fast approaching the 65 percent level of the 1960s.

Since 2005 Chicago-area residential property values have declined by more than 25 percent, but average property taxes have increased by 10 percent.

Residential property owners absorb 48 percent of the county's tax burden, with those taxes apportioned among dozens of local school districts and government entities, none of which are busily cutting costs. Amid the recession, government spending is increasing. A state income tax would have provided a buffer for those perpetual increases. Without it, the property tax burden will soon hit 55 percent.

Berrios noted that recent reassessments of property in the upscale Lakeview area, stretching northward from Lincoln Park along the Lake, evidenced "shocking" declines in property values. He proposes "opening up the system" so that property owners can appeal the assessor's determination of assessed valuations before the tax bill is issued.

At present, in January of each year, the assessor mails a notice of assessed value to property owners of every county parcel. They have 30 days to appeal direct to the assessor, but very few do. Thereafter the Board of Review, composed of three commissioners -- Berrios, Larry Rogers and Brendan Houlihan -- accepts appeals of assessed valuations, the bulk of which emanate from commercial and industrial property owners, who base their appeals on such criteria as vacancies and economic hardship. Most receive reductions.

Home owners, however, must prove a lack of uniformity, demonstrating that they are taxed higher than comparable property or that their parcel has declined in value, which requires an appraisal, usually costing around $400. Residential property is given an assessed valuation equal to 16 percent of the market value, as evidenced by the most recent property sale or by some arbitrary determination by the assessor based on square footage. The result is a skewed tax apportionment, with recent purchasers paying taxes based on exorbitant purchase prices that no longer reflect the property's value and longtime owners paying relatively low taxes based on under-valuations.

A parcel worth $300,000 would have an assessed valuation of $48,000. The tax is computed by using the state multiplier and the overall tax rate and deducting the home owner and senior citizen exemptions. Hence, a $300,000 home would pay roughly $5,000 in taxes. Tens of thousands of area home owners pay less than $5,000 in taxes, and an equal number pay considerably more. If the latter succeed in reducing taxes on their over-valued homes, thereby slicing overall tax receipts, then the former will be socked with increases on their under-valued homes.

Berrios promises to "expand outreach" to taxpayers. He asserts that the assessor's computer system "needs to be upgraded" to allow "more input as to current property values . . . especially data on declining values." Only a fraction of the county's l.6 million parcels are sold in any given year, and only a third of the county is reassessed each year. Berrios was vague on the type of data, the use of the data and the number of new assessor's employees required to process it. Property values can't be measured like water usage. An arbitrary system will become even more arbitrary, with "King Joe" in charge.

Another bright Berrios idea is to expand the assessor's appeal period to 60 or 90 days and provide "one-on-one interviews with staff." That would result in utter, absolute chaos. The assessor's satellite offices in Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Oak Lawn and Markham, now staffed by 10 to 12 employees, would be besieged daily by thousands of irritated and hopeful home owners, particularly seniors. They would wait hours, only to be told that their home is already under-assessed or that they failed to provide an appraisal proving that it is over-assessed.

Every day, Berrios would make thousands of enemies.

And then there's tax collection paralysis. If the assessor dawdles until March or April in setting assessed valuations, then the Board of Review won't close the appeal period until June and the county treasurer won't have the requisite two million second installment tax bills ready for mailing until December. That means a fiscal crisis for every governmental body expecting tax dollars in September or October.

The taxing bodies, including Chicago and Cook County, set their budgets in December preceding the fiscal year and forward their tax levies to the county treasurer. After factoring in all other revenue, the treasurer determines the rate needed to provide the property taxes required. The amount to be raised cannot be reduced. If the assessor reduces the assessed valuation, the treasurer will simply increase the tax rate in order to generate the amount of revenue required.

For Berrios, being a "tax reformer" is out of character and a lose-lose situation. He's a "pay to play" politician. Encouraging thousands of home owners to appeal their assessed valuation will generate animosity, not contributions.

Enduring Cook County politicians heed this advice: Shut up. Lay low. Make no waves. Blame everybody else. If Berrios is truly wise, he will forget in 2011 every promise he made in 2009 and 2010. If he doesn't, he will be reviled, ridiculed and defeated -- no matter how much money he raises.

Cook County Board president: Conventional wisdom presumes that Todd Stroger is dead meat in the 2010 Democratic primary, particularly since he will have two or three black opponents -- Toni Preckwinkle, Dorothy Brown and/or Danny Davis -- and just one credible white foe, Terry O'Brien. That should make O'Brien the favorite.

Further, rumors are rife that the "Daley Machine" ultimately will coalesce behind Preckwinkle, much as it did behind Anita Alvarez in the 2008 state's attorney primary. The Daleyites want to get rid of "The Toddler," who is deemed an embarrassment.

But a Stroger win is possible, and that makes the Republican nomination valuable. Paul Vallas and 2006 loser Tony Peraica have passed on running for the post, but two credible nominees have surfaced: Roger Keats, age 62, a wealthy stockbroker, a former North Shore state senator and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, and John Garrido, age 42, a Chicago police lieutenant, a former homicide detective, an 18-year police veteran and an attorney. Garrido resides on the Northwest Side and is of Irish-Mexican descent.

The party apparatus is behind Keats, who is likable, credible and articulate. But the party needs candidates of the caliber of Garrido, a Hispanic with law enforcement credentials. The 2006 Republican countywide turnout was 138,182, of which almost 100,000 votes were cast in the suburbs. Keats is favored, but Garrido won't fade away. If he loses to Keats, he's poised to run for 45th Ward alderman in 2011.

The bottom line: To win countywide, a Republican needs widespread support from white liberals and independents, plus white conservative Daley Democrats, all of whom detest Stroger. But if the Democrats nominate O'Brien or Preckwinkle, the Republicans can kiss the race goodbye.