One day before a hearing officer’s recommendation shook up the Democratic Primary race for Cook County Assessor, three candidates for the office met face-to-face in Melrose Park on Feb. 3 for a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Proviso Township Democratic Organization.
The brief forum, which lasted only about 15 minutes, featured incumbent assessor Joseph Berrios warding off, on multiple fronts, arguments that only raised the profile of a Chicago Tribune investigation that has been dogging him ever since its publication last June.
Fritz Kaegi, an Oak Park financial analyst, and tax analyst Andrea A. Raila — the incumbent’s two challengers — both praised the Tribune report, which showed that Berrios’ office has refused to fix a property tax valuation system that “created an unequal burden on residents, handing huge financial breaks to homeowners who are well-off while punishing those who have the least, particularly people living in minority communities.”
“When we give multimillion-dollar tax breaks to Trump Tower, guess who makes up the difference? We do,” said Kaegi, whose campaign criticisms of Berrios’ office took on a lot more weight the following day, when a hearing officer recommended that Raila’s name be taken off the ballot due to problems with her nominating petitions.
The race now seems to be a pitched battle between Kaegi and Berrios, who on Sunday defended his record as assessor, characterizing the problems found in the Chicago Tribune report as predating his time in office.
“When I got down to the Assessor’s Office, I found a bunch of stuff going on that was totally wrong because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing,” Berrios said.
“We made sure we take care of people who come into the office,” he added. “In the old days, you’d have to wait an hour or two hours. We’ll get you out of there in 10 minutes. Another thing I’ve done is I’ve gone to Springfield to make sure homeowners and seniors get reductions. We increased the homeowner’s exemption this year and also increased the senior exemption and freeze from $55,000 to $65,000, so that more people can qualify for exemptions.”
Kaegi, said he is the only candidate in the race who is a certified Illinois assessment officer (“which is required for every township assessor and county assessor in the state except Cook County”) and that he would commit to three immediate priorities once he gets in office.
If elected, Oak Park resident said, his first-year priorities in office would be to implement a valuation model “that is more accurate and less regressive,” reveal how taxpayers’ assessments are calculated, and refuse to tax donations from property tax appeals lawyers.
“I can do all of this in the first year without any new laws,” Kaegi said.