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No fix in sight for late property tax bills as officials bicker: ‘You can’t give me 5 months that have been lost’

Tuesday, April 26, 2022
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

The Cook County Board of Review will try to temporarily claw back some retired staffers to try and catch up from a months-long delay in property tax assessments, officials said Monday. But there’s no telling whether that will be enough to get bills pushed out by December, which is seen as a critical deadline to avoid a financial headache for thousands of taxing bodies and millions of property owners.

That was one of the few clear takeaways from a contentious three-hour joint hearing of the Cook County Board of Commissioners finance and technology committees, convened in an effort to forge a path forward in the wake of an intensifying blame game between the Board of Review and county Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office over the delay.

Related: Board of Commissioners, Preckwinkle look to avert ‘looming financial crisis’ on late property tax bills

Comm. Sean Morrison?(R-17) and seven other commissioners introduced a resolution (22-2803) this month calling together the county’s various tax offices to “address the looming financial crisis” posed by an inevitable delay in the delivery of second-installment property tax bills this year.?

“We want this resolved,” Finance Committee chair Comm. John Daley (D-11) said at the outset of the meeting. “I don’t want this meeting to be finger-pointing. I hope that we’d move forward in a positive manner, because the people of this county need you to do your jobs.”

“How do we get these bills out on time?” Daley said.

Related:?Property tax bills on pace for 1-month delay as another holdup brews for 2022 collections?

Cook County Board of Review commissioners have repeatedly slammed Kaegi for months-long delays in first-round assessments that will almost certainly result in late tax bills for property owners and delayed revenues for municipalities and school districts. The Assessor’s Office typically hands over its data for each tax year by the end of December; its last batch of data was fully transmitted to the Board of Review last week.

In a typical year, the county Treasurer’s Office sends out second-installment property tax bills in July with an Aug. 1 due date.

Sponsored Survey

Despite commissioners’ pleas to focus on plans moving forward, most of the meeting revolved around a cross-examination between Board of Review Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) and Kaegi chief of staff Sarah Garza Resnick over how a successful switch to a new assessment software vaulted the process into a four-month delay.

Rogers repeatedly laid the problem at the feet of Kaegi, noting that the county tax offices had initially agreed to run a “parallel” system that would keep its decades-old mainframe system in use while folding in the new iasWorld software developed by Tyler Technologies, which is contracted to update the county’s entire information technology infrastructure. Instead, the Assessor’s Office dived head-first into the new system while the Board of Review remained dependent on the old regime.

“The delay is not the technology…the technology is superb,” Rogers said. “The problem is the implementation of the technology, when and how it was decided to abandon the legacy systems we all use for your system. Now we’re trying to work around that through interfaces and essentially a bunch of Band-Aids to try and fix this implementation problem.”

However, Resnick said the older mainframe system was so outdated, “it literally was technologically impossible to get the detailed structure” of assessment values collected with the new software “to sync into the system.”

Kaegi’s office internally finalized all its numbers by January and had tried to start handing initial data over to the Board of Review as early as last September —?but the board could not accept it because the data was in a new format, and not run through the mainframe, officials said. Assessor’s Office and county Bureau of Technology staffers then had to spend months developing an “interface” to shimmy the new numbers back through the old system so the Board of Review could read them — a task Resnick described as “Herculean.”

Comm. Bridget Degnen (D-12) pushed Rogers, asking why he had not prepared his staff to accept the files in the updated format.

Rogers replied that the Board of Review is “a group of independently elected officials” that has “to remain independent of them.”

“We cannot just go utilize their systems,” Rogers said. “That's like going over to the lawyer's office on the opposing side [and] utilizing their computer systems to make a decision. That's not practical. That's not efficient. That's not effective.”

Degnen disagreed.

“It’s all of our problem, and it’s all of us together that need to work on solutions to these issues,” the commissioner said. She added that if the Board of Review had kick-started its own technology update in line with other offices several years ago, “we wouldn’t be here today.”

Looking forward

In opening remarks to the Board of Commissioners on Monday, Keagi said it is his “belief that we can all complete our responsibilities” in time for tax bills to be sent out in December, “a delay of approximately four months from the typical due date.”

“Delivery by this date will ensure minimal disruption to taxing districts and taxpayers can include that year’s property tax payments on their income tax filings in 2022,” Kaegi said.

Rogers wasn’t so sure. He noted that Board of Review staffers are assigned to “mandatory overtime” during typical appeal seasons, often working 80-hour weeks under normal circumstances.

“Given that that’s our typical process, those solutions are not available to solve this problem,” Rogers said. “Yes, we will do them, but that won’t be a solution to correcting a five-month delay.”

In response to prodding from Morrison on whether the board can tap recently retired employees and “bring them back on a contractual basis,” Rogers said such a program “would be helpful.”

Morrison tossed around other potential stopgaps, including staggering the timing of tax bills based on when each township’s numbers are ready and potentially issuing “estimated property tax bills” that may be amended later. Both ideas are under legal review but are unlikely to pass muster with state law, county Treasurer Maria Pappas chief of staff Bill Kouruklis said.

And even if they did, the Board of Review needs to give property owners enough time to appeal their assessments and undergo a thorough review, Rogers said.

“We need time,” Rogers said. “You can't give me the five months that have been lost. And I don't think you can just throw money at solving this. I don't believe the five months can be corrected.”

Other officials, including Pappas, prodded the offices to prepare now for the next year’s assessments so 2023 bills are not hit with the same delay. Resnick said Kaegi’s office is “ready to go” on assessments for Chicago’s northern suburbs, but they cannot get underway until the Board of Review finishes its work for this year.

Former Board of Review secretary Jim Thompson, now a deputy in county Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office, told commissioners Monday that he has convened a “working group” to “look at the system as a whole.”

“We are meeting, we are working together, we’re making some progress,” Thompson said. “We are focused on policy, reform and a long-term look at the system as a whole.”

By the end of Monday’s meeting, Daley was disheartened.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve accomplished much,” the chair said.

He called on Rogers and other Board of Review leaders to return to commissioners with a list of budgetary requests for resources that could help speed the appeals process.

“We expect this to be done,” Daley said. “We expect some solution.”

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