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County assessor nixes help wanted request to commissioners after watchdog raises concerns

Monday, June 24, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rachel Hinton

Cook County commissioners were not happy when newly elected Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s top deputy asked them to lend out staff members last week. And it turned out the county’s inspector general and compliance officer liked the idea even less.

 

Fritz Kaegi, left, then a candidate for Cook County assessor in 2018; Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, right, in 2012. File Photos. Rich Hein/Sun-Times; Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Never mind.

The Cook County assessor’s office is withdrawing its request for commissioners to offer up members of their staff to answer questions about property tax — after the county inspector general argued the proposal runs afoul of orders designed to curtail the county’s political machine.

Cook County commissioners were not happy when newly elected Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s top deputy asked them to lend out staff members last week. But a letter from Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard and the county’s Compliance Officer Letitia Dominici on Monday effectively put an end to the idea.

“While our request was intended to provide improved public service to residents of Cook County and allow staff members to learn more about property taxes, which would assist their daily work, we appreciate the concerns raised and given what has transpired since our letter, we are withdrawing our request for volunteers,” Kaegi spokesman Scott Smith said in a statement.

In their own letter to commissioners on Monday, Blanchard and Dominici concluded the county’s “Employment Plan and Supplemental Policies and Personnel Rules do not contemplate Shakman exempt employees performing the work of Shakman non-exempt employees in the Assessor’s Office.”

In layman’s terms?

“There’s no avenue or provision in any of these guiding documents that addresses the principle of exempt employees working as non-exempt employees,” Blanchard said. “It’s my view that it violates the principles that Shakman stands for.”

The response comes after Sarah Garza Resnick, the chief deputy assessor, sent a letter to commissioners last Tuesday, requesting the help of their staffs to field a high volume of calls from taxpayers with questions about the second installment of their property tax bills.

“The Cook County Assessor’s Office would like to request the assistance of your office, and would greatly appreciate the assistance of as many of your staff that you can spare to answer questions from taxpayers who call our office during this time,” Resnick wrote in the letter sent Tuesday and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The request came weeks after an audit found the office was working with outdated technology and understaffed to carry out its property valuations.

Some commissioners — including Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, and Kevin Morrison, D-Mount Prospect — weren’t having it. They said they didn’t think it was appropriate to loan out their staff, given that they were busy handling constituent concerns all day.

Before Kaegi reversed course, Suffredin predicted that Monday’s letter would put a clear end to things.

“I think that the letter speaks for itself and shows that the county has a pro-active role in protecting the Shaman decree — the fact that it’s co-signed by the inspector general and the compliance officer is significant,” Suffredin said. “All in all, this was not a well thought out idea, and this letter clearly puts it to bed.”

The assessor’s office expects bills to be mailed out around July 1 and had asked for help from July 1 to Aug. 1. That’s when the assessor receives the most taxpayers in the office each year, according to the original letter to commissioners.

Smith said at the time the office has previously received help from the Board of Review and it was a “usual thing for us.”

“Tax bills go out, people have a lot of questions, and the office has more people in it than normal, and we want to make sure people get their questions answered,” Smith said.

On Monday, Smith said, “As always, if any commissioner or their staffs have questions about assessments, homestead exemptions or appeals we encourage them to continue to reach out to us.”



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