Battle brewing over Cook Co property taxes

April 1, 2010 4:42:35 AM PDT
The Cook County assessor is accusing two Democratic Party leaders of trying to delay property tax bills for political gain. James Houlihan claims members of his own party are trying to hide information from taxpayers that could affect the outcome of the general election in November.

Cook County Democratic Chairman Joseph Berrios and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan are the targets of Houlihan's accusations.

Tax bills are expected to be higher now that the cap on assessment hikes is gone. County assessor Houlihan says both men want to delay sending out property tax bills to avoid upsetting voters just before they go to the polls on November 2. Madigan and Berrios are disputing the claim.

There is a loose cannon on the main deck of the SS Democratic Machine and he is the Cook County Assessor James Houlihan. Houlihan, a lame duck in the last year of his term, has uncovered what he says is a grand scheme by the party bosses.

Assessor Houlihan, who is retiring at the end of this term, held his news conference to blow the whistle on two Democratic bosses:

  • Joseph Berrios, the Cook County party chairman, board of review commissioner, lobbyist and current candidate for assessor,
  • and Michael Madigan, the state party chairman, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and attorney who specializes in property tax appeals.

Houlihan alleges that Berrios and Madigan are using their political clout to delay the release second installment property tax bills until after the November general election.

"Berrios and Madigan's goal in delaying the tax bills is simple, they want to protect their candidates from voter anger that will arise from higher property tax bills," said Houlihan.

The assessor also charges that Berrios's board of review has lowered so many tax bills for skyscrapers and other commercial buildings -- some of whom are clients of Madigan -- that residential taxpayers are paying more to make up the balance.

"There has been not been any conversation as to delaying tax bills or anything else," Berrios said.

Berrios, backed by the two other board of review commissioners, accused Houlihan of playing politics. He blamed the assessor's staff for overvaluing too many properties and causing a last-minute residential backlog at the board.

"For us to get virtually 50 percent of our work in the last three weeks, is ridiculous," said Berrios.

A spokesman for madigan called Houlihan's claim "another in a long series of blunders," adding, "taxpayers are looking forward to the end of the Houlihan era."

Homeowner David Weld happened to be at the county trying to appeal his tax bill. Does he trust the people in charge of the system?

"It's hard to ask a taxpayer in this day and age if he trusts a politician. That's a loaded question," said Weld.

Lifelong Democrat Houlihan is not worried that his standing in the party.

"I think a Democrat in good standing is a Democrat who stands up for the issues that they believe in," said Houlihan.

Houlihan also suggested that voters not support Berrios in the latter's bid to be elected the assessor next fall. Berrios pointed out he won the Democratic nomination without Houlihan's support and will run proudly in November as a Democrat.

There are self-described reformers urging Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool to run against Berrios for county assessor as an independent candidate in November. That's something to watch as this dispute develops.