In Bellwood, Fritz Kaegi Blasts ‘Machine Politics’ That Saddle Property Tax System

Friday, July 20, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Fritz Kaegi during a breakfast in Bellwood on July 19. | Courtesy J. Boston 

Fritz Kaegi, the Democratic nominee for Cook County Assessor, visited Bellwood Village Hall, 2350 S. 25th Ave. in Bellwood, on July 19 to lay out his plans to reform the office and invite community leaders to play roles in his transition.

The assessor’s office has been under siege ever since the Chicago Tribune published The Tax Divide, a four-part investigation conducted last year.

The paper’s analysis revealed that “for years the county’s property tax system created an unequal burden on residents, handing huge financial breaks to homeowners who are well-off while punishing those who have the least, particularly people living in minority communities.”

The paper’s articles sparked a backlash that helped propel Kaegi to an overwhelming win in the Democratic primary in March against two-term incumbent and former Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios.

Kaegi took nearly 46 percent of the vote while Berrios garnered around 34 percent of the vote. A third candidate, Andrea Raila, garnered around 20 percent of the vote.

In Proviso Township, the two frontrunners were separated by fewer than 200 votes, with each of them taking around 40 percent of the vote.

Kaegi, who doesn’t face any serious Republican challenger in the November general election, takes office in December.

Kaegi’s Bellwood visit was his first since the Chicago Tribune published another revelatory article about the assessor’s office on July 13.

Documents obtained after the Tribune filed a lawsuit against the assessor’s office show that analysts at the office “often changed home values produced by the office’s computer model, a sign of shortcomings in the system that made the property tax system unfair to less-affluent homeowners.”

The paper also reported that more “than a fifth of home values were adjusted during ‘hand reviews,’ with assessment analysts sometimes relying on websites such as Zillow or Trulia to determine a home’s characteristics […]”

During Thursday’s meeting, which was hosted by the Bellwood Chamber of Commerce and Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey, Kaegi referenced a February Crain’s report showing that the assessor’s office grossly undervalues downtown office towers like the Aon Center (which sold for $712 million, but that the assessor valued at only $356 million).

According to the Crain’s study, the 50 largest property sales in Cook County over the past five years were sold for a total of $17.1 billion, but the assessor valued them at only $7.8 billion.

“The difference—about $9.2 billion—equals the value of nearly 40,000 median-priced homes in the Chicago area,” Crain’s reported.

Kaegi said that the current way that the assessor’s office values properties “is the direct consequence of a system that is corrupted by a small handful of people at the expense of millions of people across the county who desperately need fairness.”

By “small handful of people,” Kaegi meant an elite group of politicians and property tax lawyers (state Democratic Party Chairman and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, for instance, is both). The latter file for millions in property tax appeals on behalf of wealthy clients while the former routinely accept campaign money from lawyers and wealthy property owners.

Berrios has taken millions in campaign donations from property tax lawyers and has hired several relatives. He has also delayed implementation of a new property valuation system that its creators (and, in a press release, Berrios himself) claimed was more accurate than the system currently in place.

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Kaegi invited Bellwood community leaders to help with his transition into an office held by Joe Berrios for two terms. | J. Boston 

“We all know what happens when governments get corrupted for the political and economic benefit of a select few,” Kaegi said in Bellwood. “Ethical issues, a lack of transparency, pay-to-play and nepotism — these are the hallmarks of machine politics.”

Kaegi said that once he’s installed in office, he’ll rely on a variety of updated methods to calculate property values more accurately.

“We’re in the middle of a data revolution, computing power is getting cheaper and there are all sort of sources out there for how we can calculate the value of people’s homes,” Kaegi, a longtime financial manager, said.

“We’ve got 3-D modeling, we’ve got mortgage data, geographic information systems, other third-party sources, data that used to be trapped in other government offices like building permits,” he said. “This can all be captured and stored at lower cost.”

Kaegi said that he’ll bring “sunlight” and “transparency” to the assessment process, adding that “right now, this office won’t even tell you how they came up with your assessment.”

The incoming assessor said that state’s property tax code requires county assessors to make their valuation standards a matter of public record.

“This is what they do in every other county,” Kaegi said. “We have to do it here. We will do it here. It’s going to focus the minds of people who work in this office to know that you’re going to be accountable for what you put out there.”

Kaegi described the current system in plain language.

“Right now they come up with a number that they know is probably wrong and then you complain about it and then they say, ‘Yeah, you know what, your number’s probably wrong, you should appeal,'” he said.

“There’s no accountability for how they came up with that number in the first place and guess what? Most people don’t appeal,” Kaegi added. “Most people don’t have time or they don’t know that they can. A lot of people who might not speak English as a first language don’t feel comfortable sticking their neck out.”

Kaegi then laid out a laundry list of tasks that will be waiting for his staff come December, all in an effort to set “a new ethical tone” at the assessor’s office.

He said that he plans to eliminate “pay-to-play” politics in the office, hire culturally diverse and qualified staff, eliminate nepotism, create a public visitor log, and vowed that he will not accept donations from the property tax appeals industry.

“We’re going to measure this office by how we do for the average person who doesn’t appeal,” Kaegi said, before soliciting help, in the form of ideas and expertise, from the roughly 40 community and civic leaders in attendance.

“After the campaign, Mayor Harvey was one of the first mayors we talked to because we want to talk to mayors who want to encourage industrial and commercial investment and we need your expertise,” Kaegi said.

He noted that he’s currently forming a transition team and told people to send their ideas, suggestions, concerns and personnel references (particularly people with data-gathering experience) to transition@fritzforassessor.org. VFP 

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