Cook County Assessor’s race: not for faint-hearted

30 Oct

The Race:

Cook County Assessor

The Job:

The Cook County Assessor’s Office is not just the final destination of Jake and Elwood to pay back taxes (The Blues Brothers). The office is responsible for assessing the values of each parcel of property in the county (the job of the Assessor) and hearing appeals to the values they’ve assessed the Board of Review), usually done with the aid of specialized appeals lawyers. The property taxes paid depend on the assessed value. The office is notoriously corrupt, officials often accused of accepting money and other bribes in exchange for lowered assessments and granting appeals.

The Candidates:

Joe Berrios – Democrat –

Berrios grew up in Chicago, and currently is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, the first Hispanic person to be elected to the role. He was a state representative in the ’80’s, and is on the Board of Review (reviews appeals on property values assessed by the Assessor). He says that he wants to make the assessing process more accurate and transparent, using new technologies.

Forrest Claypool – Independent –

Claypool is a Democrat who is running as an Independent after losing the Democratic party nomination to Berrios. He is currently the Cook County Commissioner, and served as the Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, the Deputy Commissioner of the Cook County Board of Appeals, Deputy State Treasurer and the Superintendent of the Chicago Park District. He says that he wants to make the office fair, honest and transparent, and that he will not accept contributions from appeals lawyers.

Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall – Republican –

Strobeck-Eckersall has lived in Evanston all her life, and has a background in banking and real estate. She is currently a real estate broker and appraiser, and served as the Evanston Township Assessor for 11 years. She says that she will improve the integrity of the office, as well as the technology used and assistance for tax payers.

Robert C. Grota – Green –

Grota is from Wisconsin and currently lives in Chicago. His father was a property assessor and he’s worked in the field since a young age as an assessor in Wisconsin, and he currently works as an analyst for the Cook County Assessor’s office. He says that the process of appeals needs to be improved and new technology is needed to make assessments fair and accurate, as well as the need for an overseeing body for the Board of Appeals.

The Skinny:

The race has come down to Berrios and Claypool personally attacking each other left and right. Both have put out attack ads, and both created websites that appear to be for the sole purpose of bashing each other.

This year, property tax bills will be mailed a  month later than normal, conveniently after the elections. The current assessor Jim Houlihan blames Berrios for slowing appeals to delay the bills. Berrios says that Houlihan delayed the bills to give Claypool an advantage.

Berrios also lobbies state senate president John Cullerton and house speaker Michael Madigan for clients in Springfield, both of who are members of law firms that have appeals pending.

Berrios has been accused of pay-to-play politics by both Claypool and Chicago Magazine (who worked with the Better Government Association on an investigation).

Berrios responded that Claypool and the BGA have several large donors in common, and that Claypool has accepted $500,000 in campaign contributions from rich property owners, who could easily end up with appeals before the Board of Review.

Berrios has also accused Claypool of giving parking garage business to private companies after accepting donations from them as the Park District superintendent.

Name-calling continued during a debate televised on WTTW October 18. Claypool attacked Berrios for hiring relatives for government positions (which has been confirmed), and Berrios said that Claypool didn’t care about citizens because he did not vote in the February primary elections (Claypool said in his defense that it was just a crazy day).

After looking at state and county records, the Claypool campaign released a report October 27 detailing which buildings got major tax breaks from the Board of Review, what law firms represented them and how much money the firms donated. Berrios’ campaign funds have received over $3 million from tax appeal law firms since 1982.

Key Endorsements:

Berrios has been endorsed by Governor Pat Quinn, Secretary of State Jesse White, the Chicago Defender and the Cook County Democratic Party.

Claypool has been endorsed by the current Assessor Jim Houlihan, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, the Southtown Star and the Pioneer Local.

Strobeck-Eckersall has been endorsed by several Republican candidates, several Republican organizations and two local Evanston newspapers.

Grota has been endorsed by the Green Party.

Lisa Klein

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