CHICAGO – Cook County taxpayers should expect a less troubled and more efficient Cook County Assessor's office, a spokesman for newly elected Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi promised.
“In our first week, we started to change the culture here,” Chief Communications Officer Scott Smith said. “First, we ended the employment of anyone who was hired strictly due to nepotism or patronage. We also signed an executive order outlining a new ethics policy for the entire Assessor’s Office. Included in this were a gift ban, a ban on political donations from employees to the assessor, a policy of recusal for conflicts of interest and a public visitor log for executive staff.”
Smith said the Assessor’s Office will no longer accept political donations from professionals involved in property tax appeals.
Kaegi, a Democrat, was elected after coasting to a win over incumbent Democrat Joseph Berrios in the spring primary. Berrios had held the Assessor’s Office post since 2010. Kaegi then easily defeated Republican Joe Paglia in November.
The County Assessor estimates property values for the purpose of charging property taxes from homeowners.
Berrios’ term of office was marked often by controversy. In 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court sided with a Cook County judge and an appellate panel demanding that Berrios comply with the county's inspector general to turn over documents in a case alleging the Assessor’s Office improperly granted an employee a property tax exemption.
In 2017, accusations were made alleging racial discrimination against those living in poorer and predominantly black or Latino communities in Cook County, boosting their assessed values and their property tax bills.
In July, a group of property owners filed a federal complaint against the Assessor's Office challenging the legality of their county tax assessments.
Berrios has also been accused of improper hiring practices and nepotism.
Smith said the immediate goal for Kaegi is to establish seamless continuity serving the public.
“We’ve spent our first days here talking to staff in town hall-style meetings and one-on-one conversations,” he said. “In our first weeks, we have held listening sessions with various departments, set the 2019 tax year calendar and begun the work of creating better, more accurate methods of data methodology and collection.”
Smith, when asked what will be different in the Assessor’s Office now, answered a more fair, ethical and transparent service.
“We’re focused on fairness,” he said. “That means delivering accurate and uniform assessments with timely and informative notices in compliance with industry standards and guided by best practices.”
As part of Kaegi’s first 100 days in office, Smith said the International Association of Assessing Officers will do an audit of the organization to make certain assessments in Cook County are fair.
“We will also have conducted a listening tour of Cook County to speak directly with the taxpayers,” he said. “People should expect they will have more confidence in the overall fairness of our work and see a new era of transparency in place.”
Smith said high priorities for change include developing the most-accurate data and improving on the skills and knowledge of staffers.
“Cook County is assessed through a triennial process,” he explained. “Each year a different part of the county is assessed. In 2019 it will be the North Triad, the South in 2020, and Chicago in 2021. Appeals and exemptions are an ongoing part of the process and our more fair and transparent approach will be felt immediately in those areas,” Smith said.
Smith said some of the reforms will be immediate while some will take time before their impact will be seen on the tax bills of residents.