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Berrios forced to play defense as county property valuations scrutinized

With questions swirling around his record as Cook County assessor, Joseph Berrios will take the unprecedented step Tuesday of defending his office before the Cook County Board after a Chicago Tribune investigation exposed widespread inequities in the county’s property tax system.

Published in June, “The Tax Divide” showed the assessor’s office overvalued low-priced homes while undervaluing high-priced ones. These disparities in assessments — known as regressivity — led to inequities in property tax bills, giving the wealthy unsanctioned tax breaks while penalizing low-income residents.

In the weeks since, mounting pressure has put the assessor on the defensive. The county’s independent inspector general opened an investigation; lawmakers at the state and local levels proposed legislation to limit the assessor’s ability to raise campaign contributions from tax attorneys; and a bill has been introduced in the General Assembly that would require greater transparency.

Among the questions Berrios is likely to face at Tuesday’s hearing: Why did his office tout and then quietly abandon a new residential valuation model funded by the MacArthur Foundation designed to reduce regressivity?

After the Tribune reported that the assessor’s office hadn’t implemented the new model, despite issuing a July 2015 news release saying it had, Berrios and his staff criticized the model as well as the experts who led the effort to create it.

Both of those experts — Robert Weissbourd, president of the consulting firm RW Ventures, and University of Chicago public policy professor Christopher Berry — are scheduled to testify at the hearing.

Among other criticisms, the assessor’s office said it had told Weissbourd and Berry before issuing the news release that their model was flawed. After the series ran, Deputy Assessor Tom Shaer produced three emails that he said proved the two had “the temerity” to mislead the Tribune into believing…

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