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Board of Review Commissioner: The Pot and the Kettle

Can either of these well-connected men really help the little guy keep his property taxes down?

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Jay Paul Deratany is running what can only be called a Claypoolian campaign against incumbent Cook County Board of Review commissioner Joseph Berrios.

Reaching out to liberals on the north lakefront and northwest side who voted for Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool in his ill-fated run for the county board presidency, Deratany's working overtime to link Berrios to board president Todd Stroger. "I call it the Berrios-Stroger tax machine," says Deratany, a trial lawyer. "They're driving up our taxes."

Berrios is the longest-serving member of the board, a three-person panel that plays a key role in determining who pays what in property taxes. To understand how, you need to know a thing or two about property taxes—I'll keep it short. The amount you pay is determined by multiplying the assessed value of your property, as determined by Cook County assessor James Houlihan, by the tax rate. The lower your assessment, the lower your bill. So each year thousands upon thousands of property owners come before Berrios and his fellow board members, Larry Rogers and Brendan Houlihan, to argue that their assessments are too high.

As Deratany points out, the big winners in recent years have been corporate entities like owners of the John Hancock building, the Citicorp center, the AT&T building, the Prudential Plaza, and other major downtown commercial real estate. For instance, last year the Hancock, represented by house speaker Michael Madigan's law firm, won a $4.8 million property tax break when the board lowered its assessment.

Jay Paul Deratany
  • Jay Paul Deratany

Deratany contends it's a conflict of interest for Berrios, who's also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, to hear cases represented by elected officials like Madigan and alderman Ed Burke, another prominent property tax attorney. "This is appalling," he says. "We have a system where Madigan comes before Berrios to get a break for his client. If that's not them scratching each other's butt, I don't know what is."

According to Deratany, the loser in this is the average property owner who doesn't have the benefit of well-connected representation. And he has a point. When the board reduces the assessment on a piece of property, it shifts the burden of who pays what from the property owner who successfully appeals to everyone else.

Berrios says he never lets power brokers like Madigan or Burke influence his decisions. "I don't care who the lawyers are," says Berrios. "I judge each case on its merits after going over the evidence. We have a file on every appeal. You can look at them and judge them yourself."

Traditionally, review board incumbents like Berrios have been impervious to challenges, in part because the office is so obscure. Plus the campaigns of board commissioners tend to be well funded, thanks to contributions from lawyers who do business before them. But the tide has been turning since 1998, when the law changed and commissioners began running within districts as opposed to countywide. In 2004 Larry Rogers Jr. defeated incumbent Robert Shaw in a south-side district, largely with the help of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. In 2006 Brendan Houlihan defeated Maureen Murphy in a suburban district, thanks to strong support from James Houlihan (no relation). Berrios represents a district that encompasses most of the city's north side, where Claypool and James Houlihan are exceedingly popular.

Though this is Deratany's first run for office—he briefly considered shooting for judge a few years ago—he's not exactly a neophyte. He's friends with David Axelrod, political strategist for Barack Obama and Mayor Daley. In fact, Deratany represented Axelrod's son Michael in the aftermath of his well-publicized squabble at the United Center with the wife of former Bulls player Antonio Davis in 2006.

Joseph Berrios
  • Joseph Berrios

Thanks in part to Axelrod's influence, Deratany has endorsements from Claypool, Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, and assessor James Houlihan. Deratany says his campaign is part of a larger insurrection against Todd Stroger's rule as county board president. If he wins, it will be because he effectively stamped Stroger's face onto Berrios's body and made the two inseparable in the eyes of voters. "The little bungalow- belt owner doesn't have the connections to get denial after denial," says Deratany. "We have to change the system."

Berrios makes no bones about his allegiances: he's an old-school Democrat raised in Tom Keane's powerful 31st Ward organization and he's proud of it. "I'm not the one with a conflict of interest," he says. "Deratany has the conflict of interest 'cause of his ties to [James] Houlihan."

If elected, Deratany would essentially be a judge ruling on Houlihan's assessments. "The board needs more independence from Houlihan, not less," says Berrios. "He's trying to make his name by beating up on Stroger. That's all he says—Stroger, Stroger, Stroger. If he thinks the city and county's spending too much on taxes he should run for mayor or county board."

And here Berrios has a point. The main reason property taxes are rising is that the city and county keep raising them. It would take a major revolt against the system—against Mayor Daley as well as Stroger—to put a stop to that. Of course, neither candidate is calling for that.   v

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