Joe Berrios has spent most of his political career waiting to occupy the obscure office of Cook County Assessor. He has spent the last 22 years on the County Board of Review, and was elected chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, which guaranteed him the Democratic nomination.
Berrios may or may not win, but he has made the office less obscure. When was the last time we had a hotly-contested assessor’s race? Never. Berrios’s candidacy has drawn an independent challenger -- Forrest Claypool -- and inspired accusations that Berrios, who is also an influential Springfield lobbyist, will use his office to give tax breaks to generous Democratic donors.
According to an article in an upcoming issue of Chicago magazine, Berrios has been doing that already as a member of the three-person Board of Review, which rules on tax appeals. The article, written by senior editor David Bernstein with the assistance of the Better Government Association, portrays Berrios as a secretive apparatchik who has resisted openness on the board -- he fought against requiring visitors to sign in, and against posting decisions on the Internet -- put relatives on the payroll, and collected campaign contributions from tax attorneys who have business with the board.
“At least five attorneys and a property tax appeals consultant who visited Berrios at his county building office made contributions to him on the same day or within a few days of the meeting,” Chicago reported. “Berrios calls the timing of the contributions a ‘total coincidence.’”
That’s what they all say.
According to the article, the result of Berrios’s close relationships with tax attorneys is tax cuts for corporate landowners who have the money to hire tax attorneys. When that happens, the burden of taxation shifts from private businesses to individual homeowners.
As assessor, Berrios will have far more say over tax rates. He won’t be listening to appeals, he’ll be setting the rates himself.
Homeowners don’t have as much money as businesses, but they do have more votes. Berrios is backed by the regular Democratic organization and Cook County Board President nominee, Toni Preckwinkle.
Ordinarily, that would be enough to win an office that nobody pays attention to. Unfortunately for Berrios, people are paying attention this year.