LEMONT, Ill. — If you head up to the sixth floor of the Cook County Building, you can really get a sense of how angry Cook County residents are about their property tax bills.
You’ll find hundreds of boxes filled with thousands of files; so many property tax appeals that they don’t even fit into the Board of Review. The boxes spill into the lobby, with 436,000 appeals in all– more than twice as many as last year. And Board of Review employees have to physically look at each and every file.
“We asked them to cancel vacation days and we’re not granting any more right now, not until we’re done with this process,” said Board of Review Commissioner Brendan Houlihan. “We ask people to work a couple extra hours every day and some hours on the weekend.”
So we were surprised when we found the employees of Board of Review Commissioner Joe Berrios taking time off from work on a weekday to hit the links, have a few drinks, and raise campaign cash for their boss. Berrios is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and is also a candidate for Cook County Assessor.
He said his employees used vacation and comp time to volunteer at his golf fundraiser at Gleneagles Country Club in Lemont.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Berrios. “It’s one day, or a few hours for them to relax before they hit the grind again. My staff are friends, they’re people I’ve worked with since 1988, who have helped me in my campaigns, who’ve always wanted to pitch in and help wherever they can.”
There’s nothing illegal about having your friends help with your campaign fundraiser on their days off. But these “friends” are also key players at Berrios’ Board of Review office: Analyst Norman Schroeder, analyst Frank Perez, manager Felix Cardona, and attorney Thaddeus Makarewicz. At the golf fundraiser, we also saw Berrios’ son Joey, who works as a computer operator, Berrios’ secretary Michaelene Modesti, analyst Jennifer Kim, and Chief of Staff Tom Jaconetty.
“I invite my employees out there,” said Berrios. “They don’t buy tickets, but they get to help out at the golf outing. So they get a dinner, they get to relax for a day. Then the next day they were back here working their tails off, like they do day in and day out.”
But political watchdog Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform points out that tax bills cannot be mailed out until the appeals are completed, and that the delayed tax bills mean delayed revenues for hundreds of government bodies.
“Any kind of a slowdown here, even a day off– this is not the time to do it,” said Canary. “We’ve got to get the tax bills out. We’ve got to get payments out. This is what the schools are depending on to open their doors. It’s the public works equivalent of a natural disaster. You’ve got to be on game.”
Not only did we see Berrios’ employees at the golf outing, we also saw plenty of tax lawyers who make their living before the Board of Review. Attorney David McCracken has donated thousands of dollars to Berrios over the years, as has tax attorney Craig Donnewald.
Critics have long questioned the cozy relationship between Berrios and the lawyers who depend on his tax reductions to make money. House Republican leader Tom Cross has proposed legislation banning contributions from anyone who has a case before the assessor or Board of Review.
“To allow this type of fraternity to continue to exist, being able to give contributions to very very powerful individuals who with the stroke of a pen can reduce a tax bill significantly — we need to say no more and then clean up the system,” said Cross.
Donnewald said he supports Berrios as a friend and as a politician. Donnewald said donating to Berrios is in his client’s best interests because Berrios is a good public servant who has mastered the appeals process.
Berrios said he expects all the appeals to be completed by September 20th.