If Fritz Kaegi needed a reminder that successfully running the Cook County assessor's office will be one rocky road, the mutual-fund manager turned pol got it a few days ago when his name mysteriously was left off sample ballots circulated by the Cook County Democratic Party.
Though Kaegi faces only token opposition from Republican Joseph Paglia in the Nov. 6 election, the odd omission was widely viewed as a message—perhaps from incumbent Assessor Joe Berrios, whom Kaegi unseated in the March primary, or, more ominously, from County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who recently succeeded Berrios as party chief and will set Kaegi's budget (unless she's elected mayor of Chicago, that is).
Preckwinkle et al. since have made amends and said it all was a big mistake. But if it's this hard to get on a sample ballot, can you imagine how difficult it will be to operate and reform a highly complex office in a county in which almost every landowner knows in their heart that they're being screwed because someone else is getting a better deal?
Kaegi insists he's up to the task. In an interview, he raises the curtain on who he'll bring in as his top aides, what his early plans are, why he'd like to begin using federal income tax data in the local assessment process, and how he's begun meeting with worried business leaders to give them an idea of what to expect. I'm impressed. But, as he and everyone else knows, this is a work in progress. "It will take time to build trust," Kaegi concedes. "We want to show people it's a new day in how the office is run."
So how does an untested officeholder do that?
For starters, he says he's in the process of hiring a first-rate team. That includes his proposed chief of staff, Sarah Garza Resnick, who handled similar chores for outgoing County Clerk David Orr, whose office calculates property tax rates. He also wants to bring in as deputy assessor Annette Moore, who used to work for Chicago's Civilian Office of Police Accountability, and Rob Ross, who will be chief modeler and data geek.
Getting reliable data is at the core of improving the office, especially for commercial properties that often are assessed at far under their sales price, Kaegi says. He'd like to move toward the system now in place in New York, Boston, much of California and other locales in which the assessor relies not on self-serving appraisals offered by building owners, but income data they give the IRS on Schedule E. Business folks he's spoken to seem open to the idea, Kaegi says. "The current assessment is wickedly unpredictable and variable. . . .Reducing risk (via a less arbitrary system) is the most important thing you can do."
Also high on his list is unprecedented transparency. Kaegi promises to put his entire computerized assessment model online. "People will be able to look at it all, line by line." New ethics rules to be issued on day one of his tenure will include a total ban on campaign contributions from property tax lawyers and assessors who practice before the office—a huge problem for Berrios—and increased employee disclosure to eliminate conflicts of interest, he adds.
The bottom-line goal: getting more proposed assessments right the first time, with internal appeals of proposed levies a lesser priority.
That said, Kaegi already is arguing that, compared to others, his office is understaffed. In other words, he'd like a budget increase.
Former Assessor Jim Houlihan points out there's a concern that may not help him with the electorate: soaring tax rates, over which Kaegi will have no control. "I think he can make the office more transparent than it was, and he can improve the metrics. But the problem (of continuing taxpayer gripes) is not going to be solved until we change the way we fund schools."
Fair enough. But Kaegi seems off to a smart start. Keep your eyes on what should be a fascinating exercise in whether a widely deplored government somehow can gain respect.