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New Cook County assessor vows end to favoritism as he takes office
Fritz Kaegi, the man who unseated Joe Berrios, orders an outside audit and imposes new limits on campaign cash and hiring relatives.

Monday, December 03, 2018
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Vowing to end a property tax assessment system that has been "organized to deliver favors to a small handful of winners," newly elected Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi took office today with a blast of announcements and ethics decrees, promising that a new day truly has dawned on local government.

Kaegi summarily banned nepotism and political patronage in office hiring, and said he would not accept campaign contributions from any appraiser or law firm that does business with the office. He 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.

In a potentially more controversial step, the mutual fund manager turned pol confirmed he will push legislation in the new Legislature to require commercial property owners "to submit income data each year, like our peers in other major parts of the U.S. and as property owners do when they file appeals." It was not immediately clear if that means they would have to submit all or portions of their federal income tax returns, as Kaegi previously has suggested.

In a speech and accompanying statements, Kaegi, who unseated longtime county official Joe Berrios in the March Democratic primary, said the assessor's job is to equalize the tax load, treating everyone fairly while raising money for public schools, but that the job has been bungled.

"This is the office that is supposed to be about equity, crunching data to fairly divide up the property tax bill," Kaegi said. "But as we know, it's never been run this way. Instead this office has been organized to deliver favors to a small handful of winners at the expense of the rest of us."

Kaegi called that approach an out-of-date relic of urban patronage politics, completely idiosyncratic to Cook County. "No other place is like this. . . .(But) we will bring it to an end, starting today."

Kaegi said that during his first 100 days he would conduct external market research "to better understand our constituencies’ needs," receive and implement results of an audit by the International Association of Assessing Officials and, as previously promised, conduct normal office business while publicly disclosing the basis for his decisions.

The centerpiece, though, is a new ethics executive order that applies to all office personnel. The measure bans all gifts to staffers from those seeking favorable action from the office, requires all staffers to provide a list of property in which they have an economic interest and says that neither he nor any staffer "may participate in any decision specifically to hire, promote, discipline or discharge a relative." Also banned is the use of political considerations in hiring decisions.

That ethics policy would appear to allow relatives to be hired, so long as they got the job on their own. It also appears far different from the policies followed by Berrios, who hired numerous relatives from time to time and got most of his campaign cash from appeals and appraisers, though generally in chunks of more than a few thousand dollars each.

As previously reported, Kaegi’s chief deputy will be Sarah Garza Resnick, who was chief of staff to outgoing County Clerk David Orr. He also is bringing 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."

Update – Kaegi’s office confirms his proposed legislation indeed would require commercial owners to submit a portion of their income tax return to the office, including Schedule E.

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