CHICAGO – As if the alleged racket of property tax appeals attorneys slipping a couple of thousand here and there into a county assessor's campaign account isn't bad enough, the Better Governor Association just found yet another way well-connected Cook County property owners are escaping some of the nation's highest property tax rates: hire Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios to be your lobbyist.
And besides being the county's assessor and a prominent lobbyist in Springfield, Berrios is the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party – the most powerful political entity in Illinois. No Democrat would dare to run for a statewide elected position, a judgeship or even a party position without the CCDP's endorsement.
In September, Berrios’ office slashed the real estate assessment on a 500,000-square-foot chewing tobacco warehouse and manufacturing facility owned by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, part of the Altria Group which is best known for its Philip Morris cigarette brand.
The action shaved about $370,000 off the factory’s 2017 property tax bill. And the value of the break could potentially be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Records show the warehouse was under contract to sell for double the value that Berrios’ office assigned, despite the legal requirement that the standard for such determination is 100 percent of fair market value.
The Berrios lobbying firm, B-P Consultants, has represented the interests of Altria and its subsidiaries in Springfield since 2009, state lobbyist registration records show.
The Chicago Tribune revealed last fall how the success of assessment appeals to Joe Berrios' office may depend on who is representing the property owners. The investigation headed by reporter Jason Grotto showed how the most expensive buildings in downtown Chicago are paying outrageously low tax bills – because the attorneys they chose to represent them are well-connected.
Berrios is facing a challenger in the upcoming Democrat Cook County Assessor primary. No Republican is yet on the ballot for a Cook County-wide office.