Austin Berg seems to think it would be a wise investment for all Illinois property owners to take a crash course on how their property is assessed.
“People’s eyes glaze over when you talk about this kind of stuff and that’s by design,” the director of content strategy for the Illinois Policy Institute and columnist for the Illinois News Network, said during a recent appearance on Illinois Rising radio when talking about how complicated the system has become.
The Chicago Tribune and ProPublica recently spent months dissecting the system in their “The Tax Divide” series, coming to the sobering conclusion that Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, for better or worse, seems to have comprehending it down to an art form.
“This investigation into Berrios' office found thousands and thousands of property valuations that had the same assessed value, down to the dollar over like a six- to nine-year period,” Berg said. “You’re supposed to assess it each year.”
The Tribune added that most experts find that phenomenon almost impossible, with the only possible exception being Berrios didn't actually calculate the many commercial and industrial assessments he was responsible for, and instead almost certainly just created the numbers out of thin air or through negotiations as some have hinted.
The end result has been the proliferation of an imbalanced tax system, one that readily punishes small businesses while making every exception possible for high-value properties.
The Tribune said the impact of the uneven system has even spilled over to homeowners, leaving many paying far more in property taxes than what they might have otherwise been on the hook for.
While state law mandates that the assessor revalue property every three years, Berrios seems to have adopted a system that routinely produced initial valuations of commercial and industrial properties, known as first-pass values, that never changed.
All of that comes on the heels of Berrios already coming under heavy fire over the way he assessed residential properties, often leaving homeowners in far poorer neighborhoods holding larger tax bills than property owners in far more affluent communities.
While many homeowners squawk at Berrios' perceived methods, not everyone is turned off by them.
Inaccurate assessments are big business for property tax attorneys such as long-serving House Speaker Mike Madigan and Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, chair of the city’s powerful finance committee.
“Madigan’s business took in, where he did the law work for, $8.6 billion in assessment appeals,” Berg said of the period since Berrios took over the assessor’s office in 2010. “That’s bigger than any other law firm in Cook County.”
The Tribune reported that from 2011 to 2016, the law firm of Madigan & Getzendanner won reductions of 20 percent from the initial values of their clients’ properties, totaling just a shade under $2 billion.
Not far behind was Klafter & Burke, led by Burke, which filed appeals on more than $4.7 billion in commercial and industrial assessed values over the same five-year period. The firm also won reductions of $864.9 million over that time.
“It’s a system that we don’t see anywhere else in the country,” Elizabeth Holland, CEO of Chicago-based real estate company Abbell Associates, told the Tribune. “They are not doing an accurate job of assessing property, and I think it’s a frustration for everyone I know who owns commercial real estate here.”
Berrios is up for re-election this year, facing off against Fritz Kaegi in what figures to be his toughest challenge since taking office.
As for all the homeowners left at his mercy, Berg has one piece of advice.
“The first step is obviously education,” he said. “People really need to take a look at this.”