Oak Park resident Fritz Kaegi is hot on the trail for signatures to get his name on the ballot to challenge Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios in the primary election set for March.
Kaegi said he quit his job as an asset manager with Columbia Wanger Asset Management to run against Berrios because of a lack of transparency in how properties are assessed and Berrios’ willingness to accept campaign contributions from law firms that get paid to appeal assessments.
In a recent interview, he said the system is rigged in favor of large commercial property owners who can afford to appeal, and often reduce, their tax assessments.
“I’m focused on getting assessments right, and we owe it to the people to do it,” Kaegi said.
He said the assessment scheme is intentionally not made public, so that the system of campaign contributions from tax law firms keeps flowing. It’s a system that benefits the rich and hurts low- and moderate-income property owners, he said.
“Currently the assessor’s office, get this, will not tell you how they calculated your assessment,” he said. “In every other county in the state they do that. Actually, it’s the law.”
Transparency on how those assessments are calculated will make the process fair and consistent, Kaegi said.
“The vast majority of people do not appeal their assessment, and I think the work of the office needs to concentrate on getting that right for everyone,” he said.
Kaegi said his campaign will not accept campaign contributions from law firms that do work on tax assessments. Berrios’ acceptance of such donations creates a pay-to-play environment for the rich, he noted.
It creates a “systemic bias” that over-assesses properties that are not downtown skyscrapers.
“These are bedrock issues of social justice, fairness, ethics. It’s people’s property taxes and it’s how we finance our government,” he said.
Berrios has faced tough criticism over the last year, following a Chicago Tribune investigation that showed lower-income property owners paid more in property taxes on average.
“It tends to tax poorer people, people who live in neighborhoods that have been impacted by the housing crisis, and people who don’t have the change to appeal or participate in the process,” Kaegi said.
At least one member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Chuy Garcia, and others have argued that the tax assessor’s office should adopt an assessment system developed by the MacArthur Foundation. Kaegi said he would adopt that system if elected to office.
It is his first run for public office, putting him at a disadvantage against Berrios, who also serves as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Kaegi said he’s considered running for the office since last year but was further motivated after reading the investigative series published by the Tribune.
“The kinds of people who give to congressional campaigns these days, they’re focused on character and issues, and we think this race rises to that level,” he said. He believes his campaign will raise over a million dollars.
“People are ready for a change, and that’s what creates opportunity here,” he said. “The ethics issue surrounding the assessor has been well known. He has over 10 relatives on the county payroll. People know it’s a pay-to-play environment.”