Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios responds to the Chicago Tribune’s series on property assessments in a news conference June 12, 2017. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)
Cook County homeowners expect to pay property taxes based on a fair determination of their home’s worth. In short, they want the Cook County assessor’s office to do its job well. Is that asking too much?
Brace yourselves for the answer, taxpayers.
"The Tax Divide," a three-part Tribune watchdog report by Jason Grotto, crunched the numbers and identified significant flaws in the county’s property tax system. The worst of what the rigorously reported series determined is that Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios’ office produces a high percentage of flawed assessments that overvalue less expensive homes and undervalue many pricey ones.
Example One: A Calumet City home purchased in 2010 for $82,000 was given an assessment of a whopping $147,550 in 2011. On appeal, the amount was reduced to $93,630, still nearly 15 percent higher than the purchase price.
Example Two: A North Side home sold in 2014 for $1.1 million received a valuation of exactly that amount. The owners hired an attorney to file an appeal and got the Cook County Board of Review to slice $302,000 off the assessor’s valuation.
Thus the property tax assessment system, which deals in one of the largest consequences of the divide between rich and poor neighborhoods — disparate property values — too often makes that divide worse by hurting the poor and helping the wealthy. Inevitably, many of those having to pay a higher effective tax rate are minorities, while those getting the tax breaks are white.
You can read the whole series at www.chicagotribune.com/taxdivide.
There’s both sloppy math and poor oversight coming out of the assessor’s office. What’s also frustrating is that officials went to the trouble of consulting experts to create an improved computer modeling technique that would produce more accurate, fair assessments — and Berrios quietly mothballed it. He announced the state-of-the-art system in 2015 and even went to the trouble of training his staff to use it. But Grotto’s reporting determined that the assessor’s office continued to rely on the old model for the lion’s share of work.
Berrios sounded proud of the new system, which was created in part with grant money from the MacArthur Foundation. "Good government is fair and its information clear," he said at the time. It’s not clear what happened, because his office provided Grotto with shifting answers and continues to fight the Tribune in court over Freedom of Information Act requests for certain documents. MacArthur President Julia Stasch, who wasn’t informed, made clear how big an opportunity was missed: "Increasing accuracy and equity of property tax assessment would benefit hundreds of thousands of local homeowners," she told the Tribune, "particularly in low- and middle-income neighborhoods."
Calculating millions of individual home valuations is a challenging task. No one expects perfection. Every home is different and market values fluctuate constantly. Turmoil from the housing market crash will take years to shake out. But that does not excuse the system from its obligation to be reliable and transparent. The Tribune series said the Cook County assessor calculates estimates using an early 1990s mainframe computer and makes adjustments by hand on a case-by-case basis.
The appropriate check-and-balance is the appeals process, but the Tribune report makes clear that system is also out-of-whack. It’s used way too frequently: Appeals involving 370,000 parcels were conducted in 2015 alone, with reductions won 80 percent of the time. That process, too, is more likely to benefit the affluent because they are more likely to pursue an appeal, either independently or via an attorney. The assessor argues that appeals are a hallmark of fairness, and officials are aggressive about organizing workshops. Fine. But we see a much more appropriate goal for Berrios: Get more assessments right the first time.
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