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Editorial: Berrios a family guy — too bad for you

Updated: June 25, 2011 12:22AM

When people lose faith in the integrity of a tax system, they work harder to dodge those taxes.

Everyone else is cutting corners, they reason, so they’d be fools not to do the same.

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios is inviting taxpayers to think that way as he lards up his payroll with relatives, including giving his daughter a promotion and $10,000 pay raise.

As assessor, Berrios sets the assessments on property throughout Cook County. When he lowers an assessed value for one property owner, property taxes go up for everybody else. Perhaps more than any other county officeholder, then, it is essential that the assessor send the public the message that every decision is made by the book.

But what message is Berrios sending? That nepotism and favoritism are the order of the day. That good government is for suckers.

As the Sun-Times’ Lisa Donovan reported Monday, after Berrios was sworn in as assessor in December, he promoted his daughter from a job as an analyst examining valuation appeals of industrial and commercial properties to the post of chief industrial appraiser. Her pay went from $58,344.00 a year to $68,288.48.

Berrios also hired two other members of his family — his son, Joseph “Joey” Berrios, as a $48,000-a-year residential analyst, and his sister, Carmen Berrios, as the $86,000-a-year director of taxpayer services. A county ethics board investigation of those hirings is under way.

Not that anybody should be surprised. Berrios made no bones about his fondness for hiring relatives when he ran for assessor last fall. That’s why editorial boards across Cook County urged a vote for his reform-minded opponent, Forrest Claypool.

Berrios didn’t invent Chicago nepotism; it’s a Machine tradition that stretches back for generations. Mayor Richard J. Daley famously defended getting his sons on the gravy train of jobs and contracts, saying to critics, “Kiss my a--.”

But that doesn’t make it a good deal for anyone except the favored relative who gets a prime spot at the public trough.

As we look back, we’re hard-pressed to recall a single familial payroller who ever stood up and blew the whistle on a crooked boss named Dad. Nor can we recall an officeholder who seriously cracked the whip on or — perish the thought — fired an underperforming relative.

Big companies, universities and other large institutions often have rules barring nepotism.

What do they know that Berrios doesn’t?

We fear that as members of the public lose trust in the property tax system, they’ll put more energy into seeking reductions in their assessments, hiring clout-heavy lawyers to pursue appeals.

Others might protest by rejecting tax-increase referendums they otherwise would have supported. In either case, schools, municipalities and libraries will have less money to work with.

In the meantime, if you happen to work in the assessor’s office or find yourself doing business with it, feel free to doubt the competence the various Berrios family hirees.

Feel free to assume they are not good at their jobs.

Feel free to be a cynical and disgruntled employee, knowing that you work in a place where being the boss’ son or daughter or sister matters more than hard work and excellence.

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