Berrios faces quandary in 2018 assessor’s race

Joe Berrios has a huge political problem, and it is him. As county assessor since 2010, and as a Board of Review commissioner for the prior 22 years, Berrios generated a consistent drumbeat of negative media publicity over the years.

"He’s the most unpopular politician in Cook County," said Fritz Kaegi, who is challenging Berrios in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Berrios now has barely 6 months to generate a thundering counter-drumbeat of positive publicity. In short, he must repackage his image, focus media attention on the shortcomings of Kaegi, and fervently hope that the soda tax fiasco has not so discredited county board president Toni Preckwinkle that she is unable to deliver the black vote to him by a 2-1 margin.

Without question, Preckwinkle is giving Berrios a proverbial run for his money. Preckwinkle is the second most unpopular county politician. Who knows, she might even be the first these days.

To make matters worse, Berrios is running against the "Bernie Sanders Nation," not Kaegi, an unknown who is attempting to plug into the city’s and county’s "progressive" network — which has now morphed into an anti-Trump movement.

Sanders, Vermont’s socialist senator, lost Cook County 633,300-536,805 in the 2016 presidential primary. Sanders got 45.3 percent in Chicago and 45.7 percent in the suburbs, demonstrating a large leftist base.

Sanders beat Hillary Clinton, a hometown product who had the endorsement of virtually every Chicago Democratic committeeman, plus the mayor and all elected officials, plus most suburban committeemen. She was, in March 2016, the prohibitive favorite to ultimately win the party’s nomination. Yet she lost the suburbs and the Chicago Lakefront, and barely topped 55 percent in the white ethnic wards. Only in the black and Hispanic wards did she exceed 60 percent. Kaegi is no Sanders, but neither is Berrios a Clinton. If discontented voters are looking for a symbolic race in which to vent their spleen, Berrios-Kaegi is it.

Berrios is the Democratic county chairman, the North Side 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, and the highest-ranking Hispanic in county office. He is the Democrats’ slated candidate for re-nomination, and had $1,638,683 on-hand as of June 30. But how will he use the money?

Berrios has two options: First, go positive, and redefine himself as likeable and competent, and educate voters on the function of the assessor, which is to determine the value and taxability of parcels of property. The office’s critical function is to calculate and assign an assessed value to each of 1.8 million parcels, issue notices of assessed valuations to owners of record, internally adjudicate appeals to reduce valuations, approve applications for exemptions and deductions, and then calculate tax bills by multiplying assessed values by local jurisdiction tax rates. If local taxing bodies, such as municipalities, school districts, and county agencies need more money, then they increase their tax rate.

People, however, associate the assessor’s office with property taxes, which they perceive as ever-increasing, and are constantly baffled by the fact that their property’s assessed valuation has increased while, since 2006, their property’s market value has decreased. That is because local taxing bodies, which rely on property taxes for all or part of their revenue, are spending more, which increases taxes.
Imagine the county as a $14 billion pie, which is the annual tax levy to be generated from property taxes. The taxing bodies need that money, and the assessor decides the fractional amount paid by every property owner.

"He (Berrios’ office) reduces assessed valuations, and therefore taxes, on Loop properties, which means he directly increases taxes on everybody else, especially residential properties," Kaegi said. The assessor’s task is to find, after appeals, reductions and exemptions, that $14 billion. Exemptions — meaning homeowners’ and senior citizen — are the domain of the assessor. The tax assessment appeal process is two-tiered, with a written appeal filed with the assessor, who can approve or deny; and then a second appeal to the Board of Review.

It is doubtful that a boisterous, visible "I-cut-the-pie-really-great" campaign will captivate voters. Plus, Berrios is sort of under-the-radar. A lot of people may not be enamored with him, but they don’t yet know he’s on the 2018 ballot. If he goes nuclear, they will know. So, for Berrios, no publicity is good publicity. But he needs good publicity.

Second, the Berrios-Kaegi contest is a referendum on Berrios, and the assessor cannot permit Kaegi to define him before he defines Kaegi. The candidate mouths a lot of bromides that can readily stick in voters’ minds: That taxpayers must be "treated fairly," that there should not be "special treatment for the very wealthy and politically-connected," that the assessor’s office should "operate fairly, transparently and professionally," that he "won’t take contributions from attorneys who do business" with the assessor and "take politics out of the equation," and will "end pay-to-play" and "cure inequities."

That’s a lot of vague platitudes, but, in politics, a fact is simply a generalized allegation repeated over and over until believed. These buzzwords can and will effectively define Berrios. How will he respond? "I’m not that bad." Or "I’m trying hard." Or "it’s not my fault." Berrios has a real quandary.

Kaegi was born in Hyde Park, resides in Oak Park, and promises to spend "at least $1 million" and "maybe" up to $3 million. His background is in asset management and investment of mutual and retirement funds, both domestic and international. He said he has the "skills to value assets," and that is what is needed in the assessor’s office. Other than being a millionaire and self-proclaimed "progressive," there not much for Berrios to attack. And, since Kaegi’s name recognition is zero, any attack any just elevates his visibility.

A recent Chicago Tribune analysis concluded that assessed valuations, as measured against actual market value, are lower in more affluent white areas than in less affluent minority areas. Kaegi ripped the fact that 86 percent of residential homeowners don’t appeal their assessed valuation.

"That’s not proof of inequity or lack of outreach," countered Tom Shaer, deputy assessor for communications. "It means that they (homeowners) believe their assessed valuation is correct."

Kaegi charged that Berrios’s office showed favoritism in assessing Willis Tower, which he said was sold for $1.3 billion. Not true, said Shear. "It was sold for $1.053 billion, but was appraised at $550 million. The assessed valuation is based on a market value of $600 million." Expect Trump Tower’s assessment to be a campaign issue.

Kaegi also intends to rip Berrios for his multi-tasking, noting that Berrios is a ward committeeman and county chairman, is a Springfield lobbyist for the video poker industry, and is the assessor. Nepotism is also going to be an issue, as media stories have estimated that at least 15 of Berrios kin have been or are now on some public payroll.

Berrios touts many accomplishments during his two terms. He says that tax bills have been mailed on time for 6 years, meaning taxing bodies need not borrow through Tax Anticipation Notes; that the assessment cycle has been shortened, meaning notices are sent earlier, and appeals addressed quicker; that $44.7 million has been recovered from "erroneous exemptions," meaning those obtained through fraud, with $6.4 million of tax liens in place; that the office’s employees have dropped from 385 to 289; and that the 2011 backlog of 10,000 Certificates of Error, which are petitions for a tax refund due to some internal or taxpayer mistake, have been reduced to just 350, which is the number received daily.

"I am extremely proud of the improvements in the assessor’s office since my election," said Berrios. "Efficiency and services continue to improve, and all appeals are decided on merit, with no regard for campaign donations, or lack of same." Such rhetoric is not going to excite the electorate.

The assessor’s political problem is systemic, observed Frank Avila, an attorney and political consultant. "He (Berrios) inherited the office from (prior assessors) Jim Houlihan and Tom Hynes. Any changes have to come through the (state) legislature, not internally." Berrios, Avila added, "is resilient," but has "real problems."

Berrios does have some advantages going into 2018. Any Kaegi attack will be on his character, not his performance. He can expect some Hispanic ethnic solidarity. Berrios is of Puerto Rican heritage, but can expect south side Mexican-American support. However, Hispanics comprise about 10 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, and blacks about 30 to 35 percent. To win, Berrios needs 60 to 65 percent of the minority vote, and not less than 40 percent of the white vote. Berrios is dependent on the party "Machine" to deliver the white vote, but his Lakefront and suburban vote will be dismal.

The 2010 election is illustrative. After Berrios won the primary against a black candidate and another Hispanic with 39.1 percent, he faced independent Forrest Claypool and a Republican and Green candidate. Berrios topped Claypool 640,882 to 424,549, carrying Chicago with 60.2 percent on the crest of the black vote, but losing the suburbs 35.9-36.2 percent to Claypool.

Kaegi is potentially 2018’s upset-of-the-year. Though unknown and undefined, his redeeming attribute is "I-am-not-Joe Berrios." If he spends $3 million, he cannot lose. No creative strategizing can save Berrios. The assessor’s sole hope is to knock Kaegi off the ballot for insufficient or defective signatures.

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