Strong resistance to move to appoint County Assessor
March 30, 2019

By Dan Kolen

Chicago’s mayoral race, machine politics, and regressive property assessment all stood at the center of a move to unseat reformer and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi from office once his first term ended. State Representative Rob Martwick (D-19th, Northwest Side) introduced HB 3605 to turn the assessor’s position from an elected position to one appointed by the president of the County Board, now Toni Preckwinkle.

After public officials and the assessor’s office voiced significant opposition to the proposal, Martwick has no plans to continue moving the bill forward, according to the assessor’s office.

The bill stirred up a public fight between mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot and Martwick during the campaign, as Lightfoot accused Martwick of doing her mayoral opponent and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bidding by attempting to change how the county chooses the assessor. Martwick publicly endorsed Preckwinkle, while Preckwinkle distanced herself from the bill and Martwick. She claimed she did not coordinate with Martwick to introduce the bill.

“I value Rep. Martwick’s input and expertise on education policy and am proud to have his support,” Preckwinkle said. “But he is not a surrogate for me on this issue because we clearly do not agree. We did not have any conversations about his legislation to appoint the Cook County Assessor, and I absolutely do not support the legislation.”

On Feb. 18, Preckwinkle and Kaegi released a joint statement dismissing the House Bill, saying lawmakers should not change how the county chooses the assessor.

“The Cook County Assessor is, and should continue to be, an elected position so that it remains directly accountable to the residents of the county,” Kaegi and Preckwinkle said in the joint statement.

When Gazette Chicago polled State Representatives and Senators in its coverage area, lawmakers gave little response and no support for the bill.

“I am for democracy and believe the voters should choose,” said Lamont Robinson, State Representative of the 5th District.

“I do not support HB 3605,” said Delia C. Ramirez, State Representative of the 4th District. “I believe that the office of assessor needs to be accountable to the voters of Cook County, especially in light of recent reports of corruption and abuse by the former assessor.”

“Most folks have had that discussion, and the result of that discussion is that the position should remain elected by the people,” said Scott Smith, chief communications officer for the assessor’s office. “We’re happy to discuss the best way to reform this office, but we obviously think elected officials keep politicians in check.”

“In principle, the idea of making the assessor position appointed is not particularly bad, but in this specific case it’s bad based on what Kaegi is planning to do for tax assessment in the county,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You need some positions that are elected, and have some checks. However some other positions are administrative, and shouldn’t be elected.”

According to Simpson, with nine elected positions on the county board, elected  administrative positions could be changed to appointments without causing a problem to county functioning.

Kaegi’s plans

The Cook County Assessor has responsibility for fair and accurate valuation of the county’s 1.8 million parcels of property. Releasing a 100-Day Plan upon assuming office, Kaegi’s outlook for the office centers around improving the methods and processes for tax assessment, reorganizing the office’s employees, and overhauling its technology and communication systems.

“Our goal is to make the assessor’s office ethical, transparent, and fair,” Smith said. “We feel like we’ve done quite a bit in the first 100 days, but we have a lot more work to do. Fairer and more accurate assessments, that’s our focus.”

Reports of an unethical property tax assessment system spurred Kaegi’s run for office. A 2018 study by Professor Christopher Berry at the Municipal Finance Center at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy estimated that, between 2011 and 2015, $2.2 billion or more in property taxes shifted from undervalued Chicago homes onto overvalued ones.

The shift in general benefited richer homeowners while penalizing lower income ones. It removed up to $1 billion the tax bills for properties valued in Chicago’s top 10%, according to the study. At the time, the assessor’s office dismissed the study as a political move. The non-profit Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA) a month earlier had released similar findings, however.

The CCA said in its report that the organization “found that the residential assessment system is more variable and more regressive than agreed upon industry standards, causing a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”

Preckwinkle commissioned the CCA study to see what the issues were, in response to a Chicago Tribune series in 2017 that showed problems in the City’s property assessment process.

After being elected to reform the assessment process, Kaegi and his office have attempted to improve the office’s operations compared to the days when it was under the jurisdiction of his predecessor as assessor, Democratic Party regular Joseph Berrios.

Impact on mayoral race

When Martwick introduced the bill, Lightfoot took it as her cue to highlight ties among Martwick, Preckwinkle, and Berrios.

“Both Martwick and Preckwinkle have stood by Joe Berrios, the former County Assessor who actively impeded the reform of a broken property tax system, is pushing black and brown families out of the city, and is really causing economic harm,” Lightfoot said in a February press conference. “This is a power grab by a Preckwinkle ally.”

Martwick, who endorsed Preckwinkle for mayor, entered into a shouting match with Lightfoot when she openly criticized the bill at the press conference. “This sort of Trump-style behavior where you’re trying to draw attention to yourself without assessing the facts of the situation shows exactly why you are wholly unprepared to be the mayor of this city,” Martwick said.

Later in a statement his office released, Martwick said, “I called Assessor Kaegi after filing the bill late last week to inform him that I wanted solely to have a discussion on the idea. I told him I would not move the bill over his objections.”

While the bill apparently is not moving forward, the negative impact on Preckwinkle’s attempt to become Chicago’s mayor will remain unknown until election day, April 2. The bill gave Lightfoot an opportunity to tie her opponent to the unsavory side of Chicago’s machine politics.

“To look the other way as the old political machine sputters on, this power grab is indicative of an unethical leadership style we’ve seen over and over again with Preckwinkle,” Lightfoot said.