The political gamesmanship between outgoing Cook County Assessor James Houlihan and one of the candidates seeking to replace him, Joseph Berrios, extended into a hearing at the Board of Review Friday.
In addition to being the Democratic nominee for assessor in the fall general election, Berrios is a Board of Review commissioner and head of the county's Democratic Party. The board summoned Houlihan to take part in the hearing in a move Berrios' fellow Chicago Democratic Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. granted was unconventional, but not unprecedented.
The Board of Review rules on appeals on property tax assessments, but the assessor does not typically argue cases before the board. Houlihan, who is retiring from politics at the end of his term, has charged that Berrios and the review board have shifted the tax burden off businesses and onto homeowners on appeals, and that they're dragging their feet on the second installment of tax bills this year to keep them from going out before the general election, which is Nov. 2. The board responded by blaming Houlihan's office for any delays.
With the expiration of the so-called 7 percent homeowner exemption and the imposition of a new streamlined tax system calling for residential properties to be assessed at 10 percent of market value and commercial properties at 25 percent, there's a lot of anxiety about potential increases in Cook property taxes this year, which could translate at the ballot box.
That conflict played out Friday over what Rogers called a "fact-finding hearing," adding, "The assessor is here to provide information, factual information."
The crux of the appeal, argued by Chicago attorney Gordon Millner over an office building at 5005 Touhy Ave., Skokie, was that while the assessed value was almost unchanged, going up $1 for 2009, with the assessment based on 25 percent of market value rather than last year's 38 percent that meant the declared market value went up 52 percent.
Millner said that made no sense in the current real-estate market, pushing for a lowered assessed value, and argued the tax notice that went out was "misleading" in that it did not include last year's assessed value or the market value.
"We believe the notice was sufficient and effective," Houlihan said. "We believe the assessment was accurate and uniform." His office presented a report showing that the market value of just over $900,000 seemed in keeping - in overall sale price and value per square foot - with other area properties. He also said the new 10-25 system was being administered properly.
The two-part 10-25 system replaced a more complicated, multilayered system. It was passed by the county board in 2008 to go into effect this year and was supported by both Houlihan and the Civic Federation, a business-oriented watchdog agency.
"It both simplifies things and more accurately reflects the practice in Cook County," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.
It was sponsored by Chicago Democratic Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who just this week announced he would be running for assessor as an independent against Berrios in the general election.
Rogers and Houlihan clashed over the new system at a county board meeting earlier this week, with Rogers pointing to one home that saw a lowered assessed value and a 50 percent increase in market value, thanks to the assessment being 10 percent rather than the previous 16 percent of the market value.
Houlihan countered that in easing the transition from the more complex system to the two-part system, that home had been assessed at 10 percent the previous year and that Rogers knew that. It's the assessed value, not the market value, that dictates taxes, he pointed out.
"Their market value increasing significantly is not the most important thing in the notice," Houlihan said Friday. He referred to comparing the market values under the two systems as "mixing apples and oranges."
"The market-value argument is a red herring," added Houlihan spokesman Eric Herman. "The vast majority of Cook County homeowners, including all suburban homeowners, got reductions in assessed value for 2009."
Yet tax attorneys are using that difference to argue in favor of lowered market values - and therefore assessments - on appeal, and Berrios and Rogers seemed receptive to that at the hearing, while delaying a ruling on the actual case until a later date.