The Tax Divide

Jason Grotto, Sandhya Kambhampati and Hal Dardick

An ambitious collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois uncovered the deeply flawed property tax assessment system of Cook County, one of the nation’s largest, most economically divided counties in the U.S. Reporter Jason Grotto and a team of journalists spent more than a year compiling and analyzing more than 100 million property tax records from 2003 to 2015 and then vetting the findings with experts. In “The Tax Divide,” their unprecedented reporting revealed a staggering pattern of inequality in the way Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and his office computed the valuations of property. Low-priced homes were overvalued and high-priced homes were undervalued, thus creating an unequal burden on residents, with people who lived in poorer areas paying more in taxes as a percentage of their home’s value than those residents in more affluent communities. When Grotto and his team looked at commercial and industrial assessments, they found that small businesses were punished, while the owners of downtown skyscrapers received massive tax breaks, with a cottage industry of politically connected property tax attorneys lining their pockets with fees. Publication of the four-part series resulted in state and local lawmakers introducing legislation to limit campaign contributions to the assessor as well as a lawsuit alleging that Berrios violated state and federal civil rights and housing laws.

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