The Cook County Assessor’s office is responsible for assigning a dollar value to every piece of property in Cook County based on market value and conditions on the ground. Property-owners pay real estate taxes based upon the value assigned by the Assessor’s Office. Because there are about 1.8 million pieces of property to be assessed in Cook County, managing the 427-person staff is the Assessor’s main job.
In 2009, the current Assessor, James Houlihan, announced that he would not seek re-election. Joe Berrios, chair of the Cook County Democratic Party and chair of the Board of Review, the three-member panel that reviews decisions made by the Assessor, then won a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to replace Mr. Houlihan. Forrest Claypool, a Cook County Commissioner, entered the race as an independent with Mr. Houlihan’s backing. The Republican Party nominated Evanston’s Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall, who served for 11 years as the Evanston Township Assessor before being defeated last year by Democrat Bonnie Wilson. A Green Party candidate, Richard Grota, is also on the ballot but polling in the low single digits.
The RoundTable sat down with Ms. Berrios, Mr. Claypool and Ms. Eckersall for the following profiles.
Joseph Berrios was born and raised in Chicago, in the Cabrini Green high-rises and Humboldt Park. His website notes that he was elected State Representative in 1982 and in 1988 to the Cook County Board of Review, the body that hears property tax appeals. He is the current chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and was part of that organization in 2006 when it decided to replace an incapacitated John Stroger with his son, Todd Stroger, as president of the Cook County Board. Forrest Claypool lost to the senior Stroger just weeks before in a closely contested primary battle.
Mr. Berrios says he believes that his 22 years of experience on the Board of Review sets him apart from the other candidates in the race for Cook County Assessor. He is the Democratic nominee.
After seeing what has happened at the Assessor’s Office from his Board of Review post, said Joe Berrios, “I think it needs a change.” He adds that his knowledge and experience give him an understanding of how the Assessor’s Office should run.
“You read every newspaper and magazine in the world and you see that market values have come down and yet [the current assessor, James Houlihan], this time around, decided that everybody’s market value” should go up. The result, said Mr. Berrios, was “436,000 complaints at the Board,” far in excess of the highest number of complaints ever seen.
Better and more complete information gets to Assessor’s office, said Mr. Berrios. Right now, there is a disconnect, and “valuable pieces of property that are being assessed as vacant property” which drives up taxes of neighboring homeowners. “I would set up a mechanism where we are in contact with Township Assessors and the City of Chicago and County of Cook where [building] permits are being pulled,” he said, so that the problem of new construction being assessed as vacant lots would never happen again.
He would work with Township Assessors, who, he said, are underutilized, to bring in more complete and accurate information to try to ensure that initial assessment are accurate. He would also consult with local real estate boards to get accurate valuations.
Mr. Berrios would greatly expand online taxpayer access to information. “I want taxpayers to be able to go to the assessor’s website, look at all the information that we’re providing, and” connect to the Recorder of Deeds to see “if there’s a mortgage on your property or if it’s been released” and the County Treasurer to see if taxes are paid and up to date. He said the website would be “new and improved,” and show “a four-year history of what’s been happening with your property.”
“The current Assessor takes it as a slap in the face when we change his numbers.… I would not look at it in a bad tone if the Board of Review decided to change one of my numbers,” said Mr. Berrios. The Board has more information, including one-on-one meeting with property-owners, and the more complete information allows for a more precise valuation.
“I am one of those people who believes in helping people,” Mr. Berrios said in conclusion. “I will be a full-time county assessor.… I will work with Evanston’s Township Assessor … to make sure that we get the numbers correct. I would hope that people would give me an opportunity to make this system work for them.… I am committed to working day in and day out to help homeowners and taxpayers here in Cook County.”
Forrest Claypool came to prominence as superintendent of the Chicago Park District, gaining a reputation as a budget-minded reformer and enemy of the City’s patronage system. He also served as chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He is a two-term county commissioner known for opposing board president Todd Stroger’s tax increases and fighting fraud and waste in government. He believes the era of Chicago machine politics, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and others needs to end, and that the county assessor position is a good place to start. He is running as an independent.
“I’m running because I have had enough. How about you?” said Forrest Claypool.
“If you care about property taxes and corruption in your government then you should care about this race because it’s all about taxes and corruption.” Mr. Claypool said that he is running to “give people the opportunity to send a message, to draw a line in the sand and to begin pushing back.”
In describing the assessor’s duties, Mr. Claypool said, “The assessor’s job is to fairly and objectively value every piece of real estate in the County of Cook” He promised to make the Assessor’s Office “one that is honest and effective and one that represents taxpayers and not special interests.”
The Democratic Party of Evanston has endorsed Mr. Claypool, validating Mr. Claypool’s belief that Evanston voters are key to his campaign. He explained, “Evanston has a long history of progressive politics and good government politics and it’s reflected by the people they have elected and … civic involvement.… I consider Evanston a part of my base, and it’s a place where we need a big turnout and a big vote in order to win in November.”
Because of taxes being lowered on downtown Chicago commercial properties, he added, “Evanstonians pay a disproportionate share of property taxes in Cook County and as a result have a lot at stake in the fairness of the administration of the property tax system.”
Mr. Claypool is supported by current Assessor James Houlihan and said he “hopes to build on the efforts of his office.”
Township assessors play an important role, but not one that Mr. Claypool has examined closely at this stage. “I’m not an expert on that but I do know that the county assessor depends on the township assessors for basic data and information on a timely basis.”
He sited properties with new buildings being taxed as vacant lots as an example of a failure of the system. “The county assessor depends on the township assessors to forward that information and kind of be a watchdog to make sure …that building permit information from municipalities gets forwarded.” Complete and accurate information is critical, Mr. Claypool said, because otherwise property-owners end up paying more in tax to make up for incompletely taxed parcels.
Recent changes by Mr. Houlihan have tightened the process, said Mr. Claypool, but they have not gone far enough. “I think there also needs to be … more aggressive communication with township officials and municipal officials. And also I think there’s an emerging technology, GIS technology, that may allow for better tracking of changes.…I would explore those technological fixes as well.”
Overall, Mr. Claypool said, the system itself is not the problem. “It’s a corrupting of the process. It’s pay to play.”
Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall, a native Evanstonian, served as the Evanston township assessor from 1999 through 2009. She was defeated when seeking reelection by Democratic Party of Evanston president Bonnie Wilson.
As a prerequisite to becoming township assessor, Ms. Eckersall became a Certified Illinois Assessing Officer (CIAO), and while in office she took more than 1,000 hours of assessors’ continuing education classes. Under Illinois law, Cook County is the only county in which the assessor is not required to be a CIAO.
Ms. Eckersall says she believes her qualifications and experience as township assessor make her the best candidate for the job. She is the Republican nominee.
“We need a qualified candidate in that position,” Ms. Eckersall said. “As the … former township assessor for 11 years – three terms – I always looked up to the person in charge, and Assessor Houlihan did not have [CIAO] designation … [T]here were several occasions when I would ask a question and he could not answer it.”
Township assessors across Cook County and the county assessor’s staff would all know they had a leader qualified for the job if Ms. Eckersall were in office, she said.
“I have told a few people: You wouldn’t want to go to a plumber to have heart surgery,” she said. Mr. Claypool, as a former Parks director, mayor’s chief of staff, and current county commissioner, does not have the qualifications needed, she said. Mr. Berrios, she acknowledged, comes closer, due to his work on the Board of Review, but he is still not certified, she added. “The Green Candidate is actually certified – but in Wisconsin, not Illinois,” she said.
Ms. Eckersall is running on a triptych of themes: training, technology and transparency. Ms. Eckersall said that while Evanston “is primarily democratic … right now, I think a lot of barriers are being broken down, as evidenced by Claypool running independently. I think right now the thing we need in our county and state is qualified people in positions.”
If the county and state are going to make real change, then there is a lot of work to do, she said. “I think the whole Cook County – all the departments – need a change right now and I feel I could handle it.”
Cook County is unlike other Illinois counties in that it has almost 50 percent of the state’s population and, as a result, a tremendous number of parcels to assess. “We have to be broken down into departments and we just couldn’t have the county assessor do it [alone]. It would be too much for that person. Therefore we have a big staff [of over 400] and we have a large budget.”
Township assessors are the liaisons between the townships and the county assessor. As a former township assessor herself, Ms. Eckersall said that she understands how to get the best, most complete, and most accurate information from township assessors. She said that she saw Mr. Houlihan maybe twice a year, but if she were to become county assessor, the townships would see a lot more of her.
Ms. Eckersall said she refused to attack her opponents, commenting that Mr. Berrios and Mr. Claypool were doing quite enough of that on their own. She said that ballot position (she is first), the fact that she is a woman, the Republican vote, and her experience add up to possible victory in November.