Assessor Kaegi goes on listening tour, promotes bill to assure commercial assessments’ accuracy
July 5, 2019

Photo courtesy City Club of Chicago
Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi went on a listening tour to promote Senate Bill 1379 and to hear taxpayers’ opinions on his office’s operations.

By Lisa R. Jenkins

The Cook County Assessor’s Office (CCAO), in partnership with members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, recently held a series of countywide listening tours about property tax reform.

From April 6 through June 1, Assessor Fritz Kaegi made stops across the county, which allowed taxpayers to hear directly from him about his Senate Bill (SB) 1379 Data Modernization Bill. Lawmakers are preparing SB 1379, which already has passed the Illinois Senate in a bipartisan 36-16-1 vote, to go in front of the Illinois House Revenue Committee and then on to the full Illinois House of Representatives. If it passes the House, the bill would go to Governor JB Pritzker for his signature.

If enacted, the bill would allow CCAO to collect operating income and expense data for income-generating properties to improve assessment accuracy for commercial properties and result in fairer assessments across the county. Senator Toi Huchinson (D-40, Chicago Heights) sponsored the bill.

The listening tour, which brought Kaegi to Monumental Baptist Church in Bronzeville on May 17, served as a part of Kaegi’s promised commitment to transparency in administering CCAO. In addition to hearing directly from Kaegi about his work, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions and receive a progress report about his efforts to create more accurate and fair assessments.

An elected official, the assessor is responsible for establishing a mass property appraisal system. Employees conduct valuation of the county’s 1.8 million properties “ad valorem” to determine the tax charged to property owners. Ad valorem means “according to value” and refers to the amount of taxes required based on a property’s value.

CCAO employees reassess one-third of county properties each year. As part of the triennial assessment process, CCAO will conduct alternate assessments among the northern suburbs this year, the south suburbs next year, and Chicago in 2021.

The assessor’s public service responsibilities are not limited to setting property values, however. Besides working with other government agencies to stimulate economic development, job creation, and affordable housing construction, the assessor seeks to help Cook County residents better understand the assessment process and take advantage of exemptions to save money.

Kaegi won election as a reformer in 2018, toppling longtime Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios in the Democratic primary and then going on to win the general election. Rising property taxes under Berrios became an issue in the campaign, as did property assessment disparities, with many average homeowners and minorities feeling Berrios was shifting the tax burden from the rich and commercial interests to them. Berrios’s history of taking campaign contributions from property tax appeal attorneys and hiring relatives and friends gave voters ample reasons to vote for Kaegi instead.

Kaegi said paper documentation represents one of the biggest contributors to bad assessments. Crucial information used to value the county’s commercial and industrial properties is kept on paper or stored on individual spreadsheets, so employees cannot analyze and update the information easily.

Revamping data management

“I’m elected by the voters, by the taxpayers of Cook County,” said Kaegi. “We’re accountable to them, so we have a responsibility to demonstrate our accountability and give taxpayers an update on our efforts so far. We are completely revamping the way the office collects and manages data.”

To promote fairness, transparency, and ethics, Kaegi asked the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) to conduct a comprehensive audit of CCAO operations. The IAAO is a global community of mass appraisal experts who promote excellence in appraisal, assessment administration, and property tax policy.

Cook County Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd), who co-sponsored the Bronzeville event, said he supports extensive review of the current property tax assessment policies to see how other counties around the country assess their property so Cook County can learn best practices employed elsewhere. “Our current system is broken, disproportionately impacting communities of color in the Third District and across the county,” Lowry said.

The listening tour fulfilled a key part of Kaegi’s 100 Day Plan. Under the plan, he visited each district in the county at least once; presented an update on the office’s plans for increased fairness, ethics, and transparency; and engaged in a moderated “fireside chat” with a community leader chosen by the Cook County commissioner of that district, followed by an audience question and answer session.

Using improved data will help eliminate uncertainty and hidden costs in the current system that deters institutional investments and weakens the local economy, Kaegi said. The end goal of auditing his office was to identify unique opportunities to improve office operations, especially related to valuations and data modernization, and determine resources needed to support Kaegi’s vision of an office driven by a commitment to more streamlined processes.

Kaegi has released his first reassessment reports, starting with the Norwood Park, Evanston, and New Trier townships. He will release additional reports for each re-assessed township, with a full accounting of the North Suburban re-assessment process coming this fall. Eventually CCAO will reassess all townships, including those in this community.

“We have to earn people’s trust,” Kaegi said. “We can’t automatically expect to have it, and we have to show and not just say” what the office is doing right. “The ultimate test will be if we’re sending out assessments and people say, ‘Yeah, I think that’s about what my house is worth on the market today.’”

Taxpayer concerns

At the Bronzeville meeting, a life-long West Side resident expressed her optimism about the reforms but questions if SB 1379 will benefit everyone and not just the middle to upper economic classes. “Will neighborhood trends components take into consideration age of home, quality and cost of repairs, and sales comparisons to name a few elements?” she asked.

“Following the rules is the only way to be accountable,” Kaegi responded. “The CCAO believes our new concessions including homeowner, home improvement, longtime occupant, and senior exemptions will benefit all residents and commercial owners in a positive way.”

Kaegi said now is the time to support a more modern and realistic approach to residential and commercial assessments. “You can show support for this first step toward meaningful tax reform by contacting your Illinois State Representative and requesting their vote for this property tax reform bill,” Kaegi said.

Shirley Newsome, chair of the Quad Communities Development Corp., moderated the Bronzeville meeting.

To learn more about Kaegi and SB 1379, visit www.cookcountyassessor.com/. For information on the Illinois General Assembly, log on to www.ilga.gov. For Lowry’s office, log on to https://www.cookcountyil.gov/person/bill-lowry.