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Here's an exciting prospect: A boring assessor's office

Saturday, December 08, 2018
Crain's Chicago Business
by Editorial Board

 

Here's an exciting prospect: A boring assessor's office

On paper, the promises just put forth by Fritz Kaegi are pretty anodyne. But in Cook County, the priorities the new assessor issued as he took the oath of office are nothing short of downright radical.

AP Images

Fritz Kaegi

On paper, the promises just put forth by Fritz Kaegi are pretty anodyne. But in Cook County, the priorities the new assessor issued as he took the oath of office are nothing short of downright radical.

 

On paper, the promises just put forth by the new Cook County assessor are pretty anodyne:

• Fairness: Deliver accurate and uniform assessments, with timely and informative notices, in compliance with industry standards and guided by best practices.

• Transparency: Build transparency into every part of the office—making services more effective and efficient—and earn the public's trust.

• Ethics: Create an office culture of professionalism, inclusion and public accountability, with engaged employees who take pride in the delivery of high-quality, accessible services for all.

And yet in Cook County, these priorities, issued Dec. 3 as Fritz Kaegi took the oath of office, are nothing short of downright radical. That's because the assessor's office under predecessor Joe Berrios became synonymous with Machine politics at its worst, a swamp of insider dealing and nepotism the likes of which might have made old Paddy Bauler—of "Chicago ain't ready for reform yet" fame—blush just a little bit.

The assessor's office, in theory if not until now in practice, is tasked with dividing up the property tax burden fairly. Instead, as Kaegi pointed out in his inaugural remarks, the office has been "organized to deliver favors to a small handful of winners at the expense of the rest of us."

The assessor's office, in short, is very important to the healthy functioning of county government and even the region's economy. And it's also supposed to be, well, boring—a place where bureaucrats do their jobs by the book. Instead, in recent years the assessor's office has been the focal point of drama and intrigue, the subject of probes into allegations of ethics lapses and campaign-finance shenanigans, overseen by a county Democratic Party chairman who unapologetically doled out jobs to relatives and cronies while regularly accepting campaign contributions from people doing business with his staff.

Kaegi unseated Berrios on a promise of serious reform. During his first day on the job, he summarily banned nepotism and political patronage in hiring and said he would not accept campaign contributions from any appraiser or law firm that does business with the office. He also announced he will bring in an outside professional group to conduct a full audit and insisted he would reject any financial campaign contribution from staffers.

The changes he has in mind will require a significant culture shift, but he has to know that there are thousands of Cook County property owners who are cheering him on and hoping he succeeds in making the assessor's office exceedingly boring—for good.



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