One of the most hotly contested Democratic races in the upcoming March primary is for a pretty bureaucratic office in Cook County: the assessor.
Candidates have raised millions of dollars, filed lawsuits against each other, and there have been accusations of racism and sexism. But it’s not just the politics that make this a race to watch. It’s an office that will affect the bottom-line budgets of pretty much everyone living in Cook County.
Here’s a look at who’s running and what’s at stake.
What does a county assessor do?
In Cook County, $14 billion needs to get collected to cover the cost of public services, such as schools, parks, and police. There are 1.8 million properties that must collectively foot that bill. The assessor is the person who decides how to divvy up that property tax burden among all property owners within a given county. It’s their job to give each property an assessed value, and the tax rate is applied to that number to determine what goes on each individual property tax bill.
Why is the Cook County assessor’s race suddenly getting so much attention?
A Chicago Tribune and ProPublica series last year found the current system for assessing properties in Cook County is inequitable and filled with errors. They outlined how wealthier homeowners and owners of downtown buildings are paying less than their fair share of property taxes, while poor and minority communities pay more than their share. This is partly due to the high number of successful appeals that wealthier homeowners file with the assessor’s office and the Cook County Board of Review.
Here’s ProPublica’s look at how the process is supposed to work — and where it’s fallen short:
An independent study released last week by the Civic Consulting Alliance confirmed those findings. That report looked at roughly one million residential properties in Cook County, but left out commercial and industrial properties, as well as condo or townhome buildings with more than six units.
Who is Joseph Berrios?
Joseph Berrios is the current Cook County assessor. He’s been in office since 2010.
Berrios is also the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. He first got into politics as a precinct captain for Alderman Thomas Keane, long considered the second most powerful politician in the city after Mayor Richard J. Daley. Raised in Cabrini Green by Puerto Rican parents, Berrios’ family eventually moved to a three-bedroom bungalow in Humboldt Park. One of seven kids, Berrios has a large, close-knit extended family. The Chicago Sun-Times has reported extensively on the dozen Berrios family members who have state or county jobs — some in the assessor’s office.
Who is Frederick ‘Fritz’ Kaegi?
Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi is challenging Berrios. He lives in Oak Park with his wife and three kids, and said he got more involved in politics during the 2004 presidential election.
This is his first time running for elected office after spending several years managing a mutual fund. The fund’s investments became the subject of an attack ad by Berrios, which alleged Kaegi invested in the for-profit prison industry. Politifact ruled that claim “mostly false” because the fund didn’t invest in private prisons until Kaegi was on his way out the door. The ad prompted Kaegi to file a defamation suit against the Berrios campaign in January.
How are these candidates proposing to fix the property tax assessment system?
Kaegi is promising to reform the assessor’s office by implementing a new calculation for valuing and assessing property. He also wants replace outdated technology and to make property data and the underlying calculations available to the public.
His central argument is this: If Cook County calculates property assessments fairly and accurately the first time, people won’t need to appeal to get a fair shake. The number of appeals will go down, and there will be less inequity in the system.
In contrast, Berrios believes the appeals process ultimately leads to a fairer system. Instead of reducing the number of appeals, Berrios argues there should be more education so that property owners know they have a legal right to appeal their assessments without hiring a lawyer.
While Berrios defends the way his office calculates assessments, he’s also vowing to make changes. A spokesman for the Assessor’s Office confirmed there will be a new model for calculating assessments in place by January 2019. It is part of a larger multiyear technology upgrade project already underway to create a central database of all 1.8 million properties in Cook County. The so-called Integrated Property Tax System will be rolled out in December 2018.
Why is the race so nasty?
In a word: politics. In addition to the assessment problems, Berrios has taken heat for being the top boss in the Cook County Democratic Party. Kaegi and other critics — including Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — have tried to make his name synonymous with old-school, Democratic Machine nepotism and patronage.
“This office is at the beating heart of machine politics in Cook County,” Kaegi said at a recent campaign stop. “It really represents pay-to-play.”
Kaegi frequently touts that he hasn’t taken money from property tax lawyers who benefit from the appeals process, as Berrios does.
In fact, Berrios was recently fined $41,000 for taking donations from people who do business with his office, though he filed a lawsuit arguing the rule doesn’t apply because Kaegi surpassed the state limits by self-funding much of his campaign.
But Berrios takes issue with Kaegi’s references to machine politics.
“The machine that was in the past doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.
He also defended taking donations from property tax lawyers because he’s not a wealthy businessman like Kaegi, who has contributed more than $1 million to his own campaign.
“The biggest machine that’s out there right now is the Kaegi machine because he’s got so much money to funnel into (his campaign),” Berrios said. “When you look at the assessor’s office, it’s a people’s office. You shouldn’t be able to buy that office. And that’s what Kaegi is trying to do.”
Isn’t there a third Democratic candidate?
It’s complicated. Andrea Raila has worked in the property tax assessment industry for three decades and nearly ran for assessor in 2010. She filed tens of thousands of signatures to get on the ballot this year, but her opponents challenged her paperwork, and the Board of Elections ruled she didn’t have enough valid signatures to stay on the ballot.
But Raila’s appealing that decision in court. Meanwhile, her name has been printed on ballots for early voting, which began Wednesday at downtown locations and at a few county courthouses outside of Chicago. If she is ultimately removed, the votes cast for her so far won’t be counted.
If the assessor fixes the system, will my property taxes go down?
Not exactly. The assessor does not set the amount of money that needs to be collected. Rather, the assessor determines how to divide up the total bill. The bill itself is determined by the public bodies that rely on property taxes.
There are hundreds of taxing bodies in Cook County, including institutions as big as the city of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools and as small as the Elk Grove Rural Fire Protection District and the Northwest Mosquito Abatement District. Many taxing authorities have raised property taxes in recent years, including a record tax hike by the city of Chicago in 2015 that will continue to phase in over the next several years. So while your assessment might be more fair and accurate in the future, there’s a good chance your bill will grow.
Becky Vevea covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.