Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios Grilled on Property Tax System

Is the property tax assessment system in Cook County institutionally racist? Assessor Joseph Berrios addressed that question and others before a packed Cook County Board room on Tuesday. 

The hearing came after a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed lower income homeowners paid on average higher property taxes than higher income homeowners.

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After this hearing, it was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announcing that a group called Civic Consulting Alliance would undertake a massive review of the property tax assessment system that was accused Tuesday of being regressive and institutionally racist.

Berrios and his staff took turns assuring a skeptical county board that the system, while not perfect, was within acceptable standards. And, he has repeated, if someone doesn’t like their assessment, they have multiple avenues to appeal it.

But Christopher Berry, a municipal finance expert from the University of Chicago, presented findings that revealed the system isn’t functioning as well as Berrios wants to persuade people it is.

His study found that as home prices increase, assessment rates decrease, causing a taxation system that is regressive. It hurts the poor the most, and because minorities make up a lot of low income communities in Chicago, the system is institutionally racist. He found that a million dollar home on average has a 46 percent lower property tax assessment than a $100,000 home.

“Institutional racism describes a situation in which rules and practices of an institution generate outcomes that are racially discriminatory, even if no individual is motivated by racial animus,” Berry said. “I’m not saying Joe Berrios or anyone on his staff is racist. I am saying that, and the data will support, that the system produces racially discriminatory assessments and taxes.”

Berry also criticized the fact that the county is not using a system devised by the MacArthur Foundation that most, including Berrios initially, said was a good system. He decried that nobody really knows what system the county uses and why they go in and correct so many properties by hand.

Berrios is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, so he wields significant power over many of the Democratic lawmakers, including Toni Preckwinkle who has remained close to her political ally.

One Commissioner, Jesus Chuy Garcia, who’s more of a liberal independent, had a hard line of questioning for Berrios.

“My concern is whether the poor people in Cook County are getting the shaft,” Garcia said. “That is what I want to avoid, and I want to know when it will cease, because it shouldn’t be tolerated.”

“We are not trying to shaft anyone here in Cook County,” Berrios answered. “We try to use the best models possible.”

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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