Berrios faces challenger in Cook County Assessor’s race

Decision 2018: In-Depth Look at the Candidates

CHICAGO -- The Cook County Assessor's race is heating up and it has implications for voters' pocketbooks.

Incumbent Joe Berrios, also the Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, has been primaried. Berrios is accused of producing flawed property tax bills that provide breaks for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

For example, the skyscraper located at 300 N. LaSalle sold for $850 million back in 2014. A year later, when it was time to collect taxes, the Cook County Assessor valued the building at $392 million. That’s a difference of more than $450 million.

When WGN asked Berrios to explain, he said: "The income approach and the appraisal approach. If you go look – go back to the courts, they have issues rulings saying that the income approach is the best approach when it comes to commercial property to figuring out what the value is."

To some, it may seem like a $450 million tax break, but Berrios told WGN that by law his office must value 300 N. LaSalle based on income from the preceding three-year period. He cannot assess property based on speculation. It seems unfair, but Berrios said there’s nothing he can do.

"If I were to put it at $800 million and then they go to court and they put it back down to the $400 million, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to have a refund -- huge -- that the taxing bodies are going to have to give back," he said.

This may well make sense under the law, but for Berrios, assessments like this have become a political nightmare.

The Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois published The Tax Divide series last year, shining a spotlight on Cook County’s property tax system.

The series exposed widespread errors in assessments under Berrios, providing tax breaks to wealthy property owners while punishing poor and minority communities.

"The Tribune is coming after me again, just like they did six years ago. But you know, what at the end of the day, I will persevere, and then we will make it another five years of Joe Berrios," Berrios said.

Berrios is up for reelection this year, and the tax assessment issue is at the center of the campaign.

Financial portfolio manager Fritz Kaegi is challenging Berrios in the primary.

(Joe Berrios, Fritz Kaegi)

"We have a system that’s massively regressive that transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, and favors downtown skyscraper owners at the expense of everyone else," Kaegi said. "When those guys are given big favors, everyone else has to pay more. The good news is that this is an executive office and we can put in place the changes that are needed without needing anything from Springfield."

Kaegi, a first time candidate, says he wants to run a new model to conduct assessments, make assessment data available to third parties to scrutinize for errors, and he vows to end the practice of accepting donations from the property tax appeals industry.

Berrios is facing $41,000 in fines for failing to return campaign donations from property tax appeals lawyers who gave more than the legal limit.

"When you get a gentleman like Fritz Kaegi, who can write himself a check for $1 million, $2 million, that’s fine and dandy. You know the assessor’s office is not for sale. I don’t care who gives me money or contributions," Berrios said.

"We think that this office has been so ethically troubled that people want an ethical assessor. They want an ethical candidate," Kaegi said.

An independent study of the county’s residential assessment practices, conducted by the Civic Consulting Alliance, confirmed findings from the Tribune series.

"What the CCA report shows is that we really have a grotesque anomaly in Cook County in the percentage of properties that are being appealed," Kaegi said. "If you’re an insider, you’ve learned how to navigate this system, you hire a clouded law firm, then you can cherry pick amongst exceptions to benefit yourself at the expense of everyone else."

Berrios says he takes the CCA report to heart.

"We are going to make a lot of changes. We’re gonna make changes for the good. But the thing is I understand what needs to be done," Berrios said.

Despite all the questions surrounding his office, Berrios, maintains support and key endorsements. The assessor is running a radio commercial featuring an endorsement from Secretary of State Jesse White. And he's on television with this message: "Joe Berrios stood up to the NRA writing the landmark law outlawing guns in schools."

Guns have nothing to do with the assessor’s office, but Berrios is talking about them. He’s also highlighting his work over the last seven years changing the system to get tax bills out on time and expanding exemption savings for senior citizens and veterans.

Berrios may be trying to change the subject, but many Chicago insiders say they’ve have made up their mind and want Berrios gone.

"Those that benefit from this corrupt system need to be held accountable. Joe Berrios has had his opportunity to fix the system and he hasn’t. So he’s gotta go," said Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd Ward.

Complicating matters, there’s a third name on the ballot: Andrea Raila. She was removed from the ballot for fraud in her nominating petitions, but the ballots were already printed with her name on it. Kaegi, obviously, wants the folks coming out to vote against Berrios to vote for him.

This is Part 5 of a 10-Part series where WGN profiles the candidates running for office.