For decades, citizens and activists wondered about the fairness of Cook County’s property tax assessment system, but its complexity and opacity made drawing conclusions nearly impossible. Now, thanks to the unique skills of reporter Jason Grotto, Cook County’s broken assessment system finally faces a reckoning. Grotto studied the arcane system for two years, reading thousands of documents, analyzing more than 100 million computer records and interviewing dozens of experts, attorneys and property owners affected by deeply flawed assessments. The result is the four-part series “The Tax Divide,” which exposed widespread inequities and egregious errors in assessments that punished poor homeowners and small businesses in Chicago and nearby suburbs while giving the wealthy unsanctioned tax breaks and lining the pockets of politically connected tax attorneys. Within weeks of publication of the first stories in July, the county’s inspector general launched an investigation of the assessor’s office. The Cook County board required Assessor Joseph Berrios — one of the most powerful politicians in the state — to testify at a public hearing about his methods, something unheard of in a county controlled by Democratic Machine politics. The board president, meanwhile, ordered a study of residential assessments. And state and local lawmakers introduced legislation to limit campaign contributions to the assessor. Drawing heavily on “The Tax Divide,” three prominent public-interest law offices sued Berrios and the county in December, alleging violations of state and federal civil rights and housing laws. A week later, a prominent good-government group co-founded by former U.S. Senator Paul Simon called on the county to increase transparency and fairness of the assessment system, vowing to lobby commissioners to force change. The issue of fairness in the property tax system has become a major issue in statewide elections for 2018, with multiple candidates calling on the assessor to resign following the series. And, despite being the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, Berrios now faces serious contenders in the March primary as he seeks re-election. The bedrock of the first three stories is a detailed analysis by Grotto that follows the same rigorous protocols experts use to measure the fairness and accuracy of residential assessments. The analysis was published as a research paper online, giving readers the opportunity to see the depth of Grotto’s work and his full methodology. After publication, it proved to be a bulwark against attacks from the assessor’s office after the stories were published. The findings were staggering. The county’s assessments were so faulty that experts said Grotto’s analysis called into question the integrity of the entire property tax system. Among the most significant statistical conclusions was the high level of regressivity — the overvaluing of low-priced homes and the undervaluing of high-priced ones. The analysis helped lead to another major finding: The assessor knew the system was unfair and misled the public about trying to fix it. In July 2015, officials issued a news release heralding the adoption of a new, “state-of-the-art” computer model to value residential properties. Yet Grotto’s study found the assessor had not implemented the model. When Grotto went back to the experts with his reporting, they were aghast. The assessor had lied to them. Confronted with the findings, the assessor’s office insisted the county’s robust appeals system corrects whatever flaws exist and makes the system fair. Yet, teaming up with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, Grotto showed that the appeals process in Cook County not only failed to make assessments fairer, it actually made them less so. He also analyzed campaign contributions and 3.6 million appeals to show the cozy relationship between Berrios and the property tax appeals industry, which provides the bulk of Berrios’ campaign money and includes many of the state’s most powerful politicians. As Grotto’s reporting progressed, the assessor’s office began withholding information, refusing to release basic documents about how it calculated commercial and industrial property values. So, the Tribune sued the office and won in circuit court. The assessor appealed, and the case is ongoing. Even without access to those records, the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois teamed up in July to continue reporting. The result was an in-depth look at commercial and industrial assessments, with ProPublica data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati partnering with Grotto. Kambhampati and Grotto conducted three separate complex analyses. The first examined tens of thousands of parcels of property and found that, for more than two-thirds, the assessor’s values remained identical from one reassessment period to the next. Experts said that would be virtually impossible had the assessor’s office actually done the work of valuing the property. In most of those cases, property owners won reductions on appeal, only to see the values snap back to the same number, fueling yet more appeals. The second analysis revealed the same accuracy and fairness issues found in residential assessments, with small businesses punished while owners of downtown skyscrapers caught massive tax breaks. Finally, the team identified the politically powerful law firms profiting off the county’s inaccurate assessments, providing the first comprehensive look at the billions of dollars at stake. “The Tax Divide” represents a unique achievement in journalism, uncovering a fundamentally unfair system in one of the largest, most economically divided counties in the country. Grotto didn’t just use data, didn’t just crunch numbers — he mastered an opaque subject, then combined some of the most sophisticated tools a journalist can find with traditional shoe-leather reporting to bring home a story of vital importance to the community.
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