Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi | Youtube screenshot
With a new county assessor now in office, a group of Chicago neighborhood-based housing assistance organizations have settled the lawsuit they filed against the assessor’s office over past property tax assessment practices, conducted under former Assessor Joseph Berrios, they claim discriminated against black and Hispanic homeowners.
On Nov. 6, Cook County Judge Celia Gamrath signed off on the deal struck between current Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and the Chicago housing organizations, including the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the South Suburban Housing Center.
The agreed order dismissing the lawsuit noted a series of reforms initiated and instituted at the assessor’s office since Kaegi took office in December 2018, upending many of the practices about which the neighborhood groups had complained.
According to the order, the agreement would reflect the “shared commitment” among the housing group’s and Kaegi’s administration for “continued reforms to the Cook County Assessor’s Office to ensure a fair, just and transparent residential property tax assessment system in Cook County.”
The lawsuit had been filed in 2017, on the heels of a series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica, revealing an alleged pattern under Berrios’ administration of over-assessing property in poorer neighborhoods and communities, while under-assessing homes and commercial properties in wealthier neighborhoods.
That series also noted Berrios’ system had served to enrich politically connected lawyers specializing in property tax assessment appeals, including firms headed by Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Chicago Alderman Ed Burke.
Burke, who is the husband of Anne Burke, who now serves as Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, has since been indicted over allegations he attempted to use his influence as both alderman and chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee, to steer property tax assessment appeals work to his law firm.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has also been accused of using the Cook County assessment system to reduce the property taxes on a home he owns in Chicago.
Amid those accusations, Kaegi soundly defeated Berrios at the polls in the Democratic Primary election. Kaegi ran unopposed in the general election, and assumed office shortly thereafter.
According to the 2017 lawsuit, the alleged pattern of unequal assessments meant poorer households, and particularly those in neighborhoods heavily populated by black and Hispanic residents, paid relatively more than they should in property taxes, compared to homeowners in majority white communities and neighborhoods. The lawsuit asserted those wealthier homeowners can hire lawyers to appeal and reduce their assessments and tax bills.
The lawsuit asserted the differences had caused homeowners in the poorer minority neighborhoods to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars more each than they should have.
The housing organizations asserted this financial strain on the poorer homeowners placed a greater strain on their organizational budgets, as well, as they were required to spend more time and money responding to requests for assistance from homeowners who otherwise should have been able to afford to pay their tax bills and remain in their homes.
The lawsuit had survived attempts by the assessor’s office to dismiss the lawsuit.
Most recently, in February, Judge Gamrath had formally denied a motion to dismiss which had been filed while Berrios still held office, rejecting Berrios’ attempt to frame the litigation as a tax dispute that did not belong in court.
In that February order, the judge had noted the organizations had not requested any tax refunds, only reforms and limits to be imposed on the county’s assessment practices.
In the order formalizing the settlement to end the litigation, the housing organizations and Kaegi noted a series of reforms imposed under Kaegi, including:
Changes in “Coefficient of Dispersion, Price Related Differential, Price Related Bias, and median ratios,” which are now “calculated and recorded at each step of the residential valuation process;”
Performance statistics reported and posted publicly on the assessor’s website, the same day assessments are mailed to taxpayers;
“Triad and county-wide ratio studies” conducted each year “within 45 days of the completion of an assessment cycle;”
The public release of the assessor’s “underlying code” and modeling data, at no charge to the public;
And an external audit of the assessor’s office.
These and other reforms, the order said, have been confirmed to have “contributed to ‘a shift of the tax burden away from” poorer, heavily minority neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side to “the central and northern portions of the City.”
In a release announcing the settlement, Kaegi’s office said officials from the assessor’s office agreed to meet twice a year with representatives of the three housing assistance organizations.
“Over the past year, we’ve shown our dedication to keeping our promises of fairness and public engagement,” Kaegi said in a prepared statement included in the release. “We know it’s the only way to ensure we fully reform our assessment system.”
The plaintiffs have been represented in the action by attorneys with the firms of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, and Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, both of Chicago, and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.