In a rare act of rebellion, Cook County primary election voters in March fired one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful politicians. They nominated a newcomer, Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi, a financial adviser from Oak Park, to appear on the November ballot in place of incumbent Assessor Joseph Berrios.
Kaegi ran a grass-roots campaign that tapped into local taxpayer resentment over rising property taxes and Berrios’ insider politics. The saga of Berrios’ office accepting campaign money from attorneys whose clients wanted assessment reductions attracted international interest. The Economist magazine profiled the race last fall in an article with a headline that summed up Berrios’ reign: “How Cook County’s Democratic machine works.”
The system of assigning property values in Cook County, a key exercise in determining property tax bills, along with the property tax appeal process have long been viewed as rigged. An award-winning 2017 Tribune and ProPublica Illinois series, “The Tax Divide,” exposed the system as clout-driven and regressive, hurting minority and low-income communities while protecting wealthier ones. Yet Berrios relentlessly defended it. His refusal to admit the obvious inequities cost him his job.
Hope for newcomer Kaegi is high as he prepares to take over what has been an engine of Democratic fundraising. Every assessor — but especially Berrios, who also ran the Cook County Democratic Party — has leveraged the position to rake in huge campaign donations from tax appeals lawyers and property owners. Not anymore. Kaegi says he won’t take donations from those interests, which he dubs “the tax appeals industrial complex,” and he would support an ordinance banning such contributions.
Once Kaegi gets past the general election as expected — he faces a Republican opponent who isn’t campaigning — he will begin dismantling a system that benefits the state’s most powerful interests. House Speaker Michael Madigan, Chicago Ald. Edward Burke and many other elected officials, lawyers, lobbyists and influence peddlers have earned fortunes off the broken property tax system. Madigan’s and Burke’s law firms represent some of Chicago’s most expensive commercial properties, seeking lower assessments.
But if taxpayers expect swift change under Kaegi, they might be disappointed. Reversing decades of established bad practice in property valuation will take time. Motivating and training a patronage-laden and union-protected workforce in the assessor’s office will take persistence. Confronting the state’s elites who profit from a fixed property tax system will take courage.
Kaegi’s win represented more than taxpayer backlash. It set him up for a clash with the titans. During a meeting with the Tribune Editorial Board, Kaegi said he’ll have the tools to fix flaws in the system that punish low-income homeowners, without leaning on Springfield to enact changes. Through models he expects to test, and with a data-rich real estate landscape, there’s no reason the assessment process can’t be fair and transparent.
That’s good. But remember, many factors determine what property owners owe in taxes: their school district’s spending, their ZIP codes, the existence, or not, of commercial development. All of that is part of the puzzle that determines a tax bill. City dwellers got their new reassessment notices this summer, with some North Side property owners reporting increases. North suburban communities are next. Then the south suburbs.
There is no guarantee that a new assessor, running a fairer assessment system, will mean lower property tax bills. But we hope it will mean renewed trust in that system. Kaegi believes property owners, especially those familiar with the appeals process, are willing to pay their fair share, as long as they feel confident the system isn’t driven by politics.
Property taxes and how they’re determined should be a math problem, a formula on paper, not a money grab for politicians. Taxes guide business owners and residents in their decision-making on whether to stay in Chicago and Illinois — or whether to join the exodus of expatriates moving to other states.
It’s crucial the assessment process be corruption-free and transparent. Finally, there’s hope it will be both.