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ELECTIONS Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios on criticism, record, inherited problems
by Felicia Darnell

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Joseph Berrios is fighting to keep his post as Cook County assessor.

The March 20 election will be a climax after a campaign that has included opponent Fredrick "Fritz" Kaegi giving steady criticism of Berrios' tenure, backed by Chicago Ald. George Cardenas, Ricardo Munoz, Danny Solis and Toni Foulkes.

Windy City Times: So let's dive right in. I definitely want to talk to you about some of the recent things that have come up in the press—starting with the report with the Tribune and the Sun Times have been reporting as well on the assessments. What is your response to all of this?

Joseph Berrios: This is a 40-year-old problem that we've had for many years. I'm the first assessor ever to try to combat and try to fix this situation.

Back in 2014, when we realized what we needed to do extra work, we went on and hired Tyler Technologies, which is a nationally known company that deals with a lot of assessments and a lot of municipalities not only here in the United States but throughout the world. So we tied in with them and along came the Tribune a few years later and wrote their article.

So then we decided to bring in, you know Toni Preckwinkle and I spoke and we decided to bring in a third party. The CCA to take a look at the system from a different point of view from Tyler Technologies is a numbers cruncher putting together type of company. So they came in pro bono and totally independent group, and has completed two out of the five parts that they want to complete just on the assessment page so it's residential. They've come out with their report. I agree with their report. I've sat down with them and we have to decide between them, Tyler Technologies and the assessor's office that we are going to come up with a new program that will make things a lot fairer throughout. It's never going to be 100 percent. Even they admit that. Even the statisticians say you can never going to be 100 percent. But we can get a lot closer than we are now which is my intention that I have committed to do. And I've committed to do that not only for all the home owners but also all the taxpayers here in the county of Cook.

WCT: So you say that they've completed about two out of the five phases that they're looking to accomplish. When do you see that four out of five or that five out of five happening?

JB: Well we're going to start using part of their changes already. Tyler Technologies working with the CCA, working with our office. We're going to institute part of the things that they've come up with already to make the system better. With the Chicago Triennial [Property Tax Assessment] which is happening now. So it's you're going to see effects of it very quickly because they're practically — we're starting the new triennial here in Chicago. So we are going to take their suggestions. Again it's a 40 year problem that we're trying to fix. So it's not going to happen overnight.

WCT: There seems to be a dissatisfaction from some of your critics. You know even your opponent even on this idea of the established way. You know people are having some sort of dissatisfaction and they worry that you're an establishment candidate. They know that you're a party candidate. That you've been into it and maybe there's a potential desire to start fresh. What do you say to that?

JB: I've been at the assessor's office seven years. They expected a minority Puerto Rican to come into that office and change things overnight. It's my job to make the assessor's office better and we have made it better. We've opened up the process. People used to come to the assessor's office. They would wait an hour, an hour and a half to be taken care of. Now we're doing it in 10 minutes. We went out and did outreaches throughout Cook County. And last year alone we did over 200 outreaches. To try to teach people how to take advantage of the system. Learn their rights. Learn that they have certain exemptions that they're entitled to. The other assessors didn't do this. I also put in a program which deals with the erroneous exemptions. None of the other assessors ever did that. They allowed people to go on and steal from the system.

Just in four years alone, we're going to recover $50 million for the citizens here in Cook County from people who have cheated the system by taking erroneous exemptions that they weren't entitled to. This is money that's going to go back into the system where they can hire policemen, teachers, put money into libraries, whatever they want to do with that. We've also gone out and we went down to Springfield to raise exemptions for senior citizens and homeowners. We've been very very proactive in the office—something other assessors have not done. We've gone to Springfield. We've changed the office internally. Now we're taking on the big challenge that we knew would be a challenge.

WCT: You've been doing this for seven years. You do have a history but for the uninformed voter, why now? Why is it that now you're poised to do what you're saying that you're going to do?

JB: Because the fact that I inherited a system that was broke. If you think that anyone can come into that office and in six or seven years do what I have done, when no other assessor has been able to do it, guess what? Good luck. But I can tell you everyday I go in there and if I see something that needs to be changed I will change it. I am there as the assessor. I'm not saying that I know everything that I need to know but you know what? I'm willing to listen and I'm willing to work with people to make this work.

WCT: How do you plan to support or advocate for LGBT rights and policies if you're elected?

JB: I have always been supportive of LGBT rights and policies. I lobbied for marriage equality, and will continue to lobby for pro-LGBT rights and policies. I will be supportive of any pro-LGBT legislation that is introduced in the legislature.

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