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Cook County assessor seeking re-election

To inform voters and to help the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board make endorsements, the board posed a series of questions to the candidates running for Cook County assessor. See how other the other candidate answered here.

[Editorial: Tribune announces endorsement in Democratic primary for Cook County assessor]

[What’s an endorsement, and why does the Tribune Editorial Board do them?]

  • Candidate name: Fritz Kaegi
  • Running for: Re-election as Cook County assessor
  • Residence: Oak Park
  • Current occupation: Cook County Assessor
  • Previous political experience (elective and appointed positions): Elected Cook County Assessor in 2018.
  • Education: BA Haverford College, MBA Stanford University
  • Spouse’s occupation: Teacher
  • Sources of outside income: None

[A guide to the Illinois primary election, including the key dates, where to vote — and the highest-profile issues]

Property taxes are one of the most important—and potentially vexing—expenses in any residential or commercial taxpayer’s budget. Give us your take on how these four years have gone in terms of fixing what was horribly broken under the stewardship of Joseph Berrios. What worked, and what didn’t work?

Under my leadership, we have transformed the Assessor’s Office, which was previously known under Joe Berrios as a place of favoritism and corruption, to an office grounded in fairness. As a Democrat, my primary goal is to make the Cook County property tax system fair, transparent, and equitable for everyone. As Assessor, I’ve kept Cook County residential property tax bills as low as possible, with average households seeing an increase of just 1% per year over the last two years. Thus, we broke a decade-long trend under previous leadership of significant increases in homeowners’ bills.

We have also modernized the technology in the Assessor’s Office and made ethics reform a top priority. In 2021, our office received an award for our outstanding public information and outreach during the pandemic. This was the first time this office has received this type of award, and followed a 2020 award for our new online appeals and exemptions applications platforms.

I am keeping my core campaign promise by ensuring that large commercial properties are finally paying their fair share, thereby decreasing the burden on middle class families and small businesses. I plan to continue moving forward in fixing our property tax system, which will make assessments more predictable and fair for all.

Ensuring minority communities do not bear the brunt of higher assessments is important. So is ensuring that commercial property taxes don’t rise so high that businesses begin leaving Cook County. What is the best way to balance those two goals?

Because my administration is following the law instead of favoring clouted property tax attorneys, we are ensuring that big corporations and the very wealthy are finally paying their fair share. As a result, we are also ensuring that Black and Brown communities, middle-class families and small businesses are no longer forced to pay more than their share, like they were under Joe Berrios.

Even as we have implemented these needed reforms, corporate real estate dollars are still flowing. In September 2021, Crain’s Chicago Business reported: a $1 billion dollar data center was planned for Elk Grove Village the “the biggest condos-to-apartments deal ever in Chicago” had approval a West Side apartment complex was predicted to sell for twice its previous sale price.

Meanwhile, downtown and suburban leasing is up. Similar investments have occurred since 2019 as initial reassessments of my administration began.

More recently, the Bank of America building was purchased downtown at a record price, and other mid-range downtown properties are also selling, despite the ongoing pandemic and related economic challenges.

I have said all along that the corruption of the past has cost us all. I believe strongly that more predictable, fairer assessments bring a more stable, vibrant business environment from downtown to the neighborhoods, while also making sure homeowners don’t pay more than their fair share. The work I’ve done as Assessor has proven that to be true.

Should the assessor’s office push lawmakers in Springfield to get rid of Cook County’s tax classification system that assesses commercial and industrial properties at a higher rate than homeowners—a 2.5 to 1 difference?

The Illinois Legislature sets the property tax code and therefore plays an important role in any reform of the Illinois or Cook County property tax systems. I’m pleased to say we have worked with Springfield on two significant legislative changes: the auto-renewal of property tax exemptions, especially for seniors, and the expansion of affordable housing incentives.

In my first year in office, the legislature, at my urging, passed a law that allowed the senior exemption to auto-renew permanently. Now, seniors no longer need to annually verify that they are still over 65. During the height of the pandemic, we also worked with the legislature to pass laws that allowed my office to auto-renew exemptions for persons with disabilities and veterans and seniors on fixed incomes. These laws would not have been passed without significant technology and process improvements by my administration that made it possible to auto-renew these exemptions.

This year, we worked with the legislature to pass a law to expand incentives for the creation of affordable housing. We collaborated with affordable housing advocates to push for the passage of this law, which will help keep rents lower for those who need it most.

Fairness in assessments starts with accuracy, and accuracy depends on high-quality data. I believe that any further Springfield-based reform should include the passage of the Data Modernization Bill, which my office has championed. That bill would mean the Assessor’s Office has better access to income and expense data that forms the basis of commercial property assessments. This data will allow us to make commercial assessments more accurate.

That said, any change to the 2008 Cook County Board ordinance which created the “25 and 10″ assessed values deserves close examination for impacts to residents, commercial property owners, and the overall tax base.

The process of tax assessments is arcane and complicated. What can the assessor’s office do to make the process more understandable for both residential and commercial property taxpayers?

As I promised as a candidate in 2018, my office has made transparency a top priority in its work.

Throughout each year, my staff and I attend some 200 events for community groups and business leaders to help explain all of our reports in layman’s terms, and answer questions directly from homeowners and business owners. We pride ourselves on being active, engaged and available to answer questions and walk taxpayers through the assessment process.

Here are some of the many changes we’ve made in the past three years to help explain the complicated nature of this office:

  • We now publicly post the rules for appeals to ensure all taxpayers are treated fairly–a first for the office. Our office has won awards from the National Association of Counties, the International Association of Assessing Officers and others for its efforts to make the office more transparent and accessible.
  • We have created brochures on appeals and exemptions in Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Tagalog and Arabic.
  • We have published extensive data on the sale prices and market values we use to calculate assessments.
  • We have posted the underlying modeling and code online for anyone to see.
  • We publish grades on how fair and equitable our assessments are, as determined by industry standards.

We have published data dashboards showing the changes in assessed value for 2020 and the effects of appeals at the Board of Review. We have also released detailed spreadsheets that show how we determined every commercial property reassessment in Chicago; we will release suburban versions when they are reassessed. My predecessors never did any of this.

Under Berrios, ethics rules were routinely ignored, and patronage and nepotism were the norm. Have those problems been completely addressed, or is there more work to do? If there is, please explain what additional reforms you would carry out.

On my first day in office, I fired anyone who was a Berrios family member–because taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund the salaries of political insiders’ relatives. I also signed a sweeping, bold ethics order that includes a gift ban; a ban on nepotism; a prohibition on the use of office resources for private benefit; limitations on political contributions or activity from office employees; and required disclosure of economic property interests by staff in order to ensure separation between the work of the office and the person who owns the property. My ethics order also bans the Assessor or his/her family from financially benefiting from the decisions of the office.

We anonymized appeals so that the name of any given law firm or lawyer could not sway a decision of the office.

Finally, I do not accept political donations from property tax attorneys or others who practice before the office.

Give us the best example of when you displayed independence from your party or staked out an unpopular position.

I have prided myself on my ability to maintain my political independence while also building bridges with the local Democratic Party. I’ve never shied away from speaking up when I’ve seen something that I felt doesn’t align with our values as Democrats.

In my 2018 race for Assessor, I was the independent Democratic candidate running against the party incumbent, who also happened to also be the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. I won that election resoundingly, based on my platform of ethics, fairness, and transparency.

Since then, I have been a strong voice for property tax reform and ethics. I have long supported a property tax reform bill in Springfield which some said was blocked due to now-indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan’s property tax appeals business. I was part of the coalition that called for Speaker Madigan to resign as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois in November 2020, long before he actually did so.

I opposed a bill in Springfield that would have prevented non-lawyers from running for a seat on the Cook County Board of Review. This bill was also opposed by local township assessors, who work closely with our office as independent taxpayer advocates, but supported by the current party incumbents of that office. Had the bill passed, it would have meant fewer independent candidates running for property tax offices. Due to the shared opposition by me and our township assessors, the bill was never called for a vote.

Sum up why you believe voters should nominate you and not your opponent.

In sum, I am proud of the work we have done to create a fairer, more equitable and more transparent property tax system for taxpayers across Cook County. Because of our work, working families are no longer footing the bill while the very wealthy, big corporations, and political insiders get unfair tax breaks. By any measure, we are running a more ethical and professional Assessor’s Office, and it shows.

Because we have made assessments fairer, we ensured that tax bills for most Chicagoans fell last year, halting a 20-year trend under previous assessors where the median homeowner’s bill grew 4% per year, faster than the annual growth (3%) in commercial. This is a great result of our approach to fairer assessments, given that Chicago raised its tax levy.

Across the County as a whole, we were able to keep median residential bill increases to just +1% for the second straight year. This was well below the annual trend for the last 20 years.

The International Association of Assessing Officers—the gold standard in our field—recently published a study showing that our reassessment of the north suburbs met industry standards for accuracy, equity, and uniformity for the first time in memory.

Our office created a new, easier-to-use, online appeals process, now processing hundreds of thousands of cases per year; and created an online exemption application process.

We wrote our residential models in open source code and published them so they could not only be reviewed by the public but also by academics and journalists. We showed our sources, methods, and assumptions for our commercial assessments.

This year, we are also making our commercial model data publicly available without requiring a FOIA.

We are now an award-winning public office in the areas of customer service. We’ve made it easier to access property tax exemptions. And we’ve helped expand affordable housing.

There’s much more work to do–but some want to take us back to the old way of doing business in Cook County. We must instead keep pressing forward, and make sure that those who want special treatment or unfair tax breaks for the very wealthy and big corporations are defeated.

I hope to continue this work in a new term, where I will push to make more exemptions auto-renew. We’ll also continue to work with housing providers to identify affordable housing properties and assess them accurately. We will expand our already robust outreach program to communities. I hope I can count on the support of Cook County voters in the June 28 Democratic primary. Together, we will ensure that we continue the great progress we’ve made in creating fairness and equity in our property tax system.

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