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Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi's property tax reforms stall out in Springfield

Friday, May 31, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi conceded Thursday that his signature reform proposal has no chance of being approved before state lawmakers go home, dealing a setback to the rookie politician who campaigned on a promise to fix a broken system.

Kaegi was pushing changes that he said would improve the accuracy, fairness and predictability of the much-criticized way the county assesses commercial buildings for property tax purposes.

The bill would have required large commercial property owners in the county to disclose income and expenses so his office could use the data to improve accuracy of the valuations on which property taxes are based. Other Illinois counties would have been allowed to adopt the same requirements.

But the plan ran into strong opposition from business interests, trade unions and the owners of large downtown Chicago buildings.

The Senate approved the bill, but it hit a roadblock in the House. That chamber is controlled by veteran Speaker Michael Madigan, who owns a property tax appeals firm. Madigan’s firm represents many owners of large commercial buildings that would have been subject to the reporting requirements in Kaegi’s bill.

And the bill’s primary aim — making assessments of those large commercial properties more accurate — could hurt the business of appeals firms like Madigan’s. That’s because such attorneys typically only get paid if they succeed in reducing a client’s taxes — a less likely prospect if the assessments are right in the first place.

Madigan had recused himself from the issue, according to Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside, a chief co-sponsor of the bill.

On Thursday, the day before lawmakers are scheduled to end spring session, Kaegi vowed to resurrect the effort in the fall.

The proposal “remains the best first legislative step toward reform of the property tax system,” Kaegi said in an emailed statement. “We’ll be back next session to get it passed.”

Kaegi unseated two-term incumbent Joe Berrios last November after major problems with the county assessment system were identified in “The Tax Divide,” a series published by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. The series concluded in part that large commercial properties were often underassessed, resulting in an unfair shift of the tax burden to smaller business and residential property owners.

The new assessor declared his bill, aimed at fixing that problem, his top legislative priority during a City Club speech in February. Just a week ago, Kaegi wrote in a campaign email that the bill was “the single most important step we can take right now to reform our massively broken” property tax assessment system.

But opposition was voiced by 16 special interest groups — including the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Federation. Some trade unions that have strong alliances with the construction industry also remained opposed, worried that it could stunt new development, Zalewski said.

Backing the bill were Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Several left-leaning unions also supported the effort.

After the bill stalled about three weeks ago, Kaegi spent many hours negotiating with opponents over the provisions, agreeing to some changes. But the groups remained “philosophically” opposed “to changes in the assessment practices,” Zalewski said.

Kaegi also opened himself up to criticism inside the Capitol last week when he sent out an email to supporters urging them to support the bill. The pitch also doubled as a campaign fundraising appeal, leading to grumbling from the phalanx of lobbyists hired to oppose the bill.

In addition, the opposition said it felt a news release sent out last week by Kaegi’s office falsely implied that an agreement had been reached. “Negotiations have resolved concerns about the bill’s language,” the assessor’s release stated.

The two sides were working on changes that included more protections to ensure proprietary business information was not made public, reducing the types of properties that would have to report, increasing the minimum assessed property value that would trigger the reporting requirement and lowering fines for violating the proposed law.

But that didn’t satisfy the opponents’ underlying concerns, according to a letter the 16 organizations sent to legislators Tuesday.

“The parties all acknowledged ... that no agreement (on the bill) had been reached,” the letter stated. “The changes made (to the bill) were not concessions, as often occurs in legislative negotiations, but rather corrections to a deeply flawed bill.”

The bill, the letter added, “contemplates a tremendous, rapid and uncertain shift in a $14.5 billion segment (total Cook County property taxes) of the Illinois economy.”

Compounding that uncertainty were the reassessments of commercial properties in the north suburbs, where the assessed values were boosted at far higher percentages than residential properties — which would shift a greater portion of the tax burden onto businesses.

Kaegi maintains that many commercial properties are underassessed, creating unfairness in the system. And he reiterated that in a missive he sent legislators in response to the letter from opponents.

“Asking our office to continue using a broken system goes against the reform taxpayers and voters want,” Kaegi wrote, urging passage of his bill. “Opponents of the bill would prefer we wait longer, knowing that the longer we wait, the less likely the bill is to pass. Delays favor a broken assessment system, however, that prolongs inequality.”

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