When Fritz Kaegi won the election for Cook County Assessor in November 2018, he pledged to change the way the office did business. As he works his way through his agenda, his second year has been marked by an unprecedented shutdown due to COVID-19. And, that has necessitated a pivot in how the office handles re-assessments.

Kaegi says that with the economic shutdown because of the pandemic, it rapidly became apparent that his office needed to make changes. His office recently issued a press release regarding the decision to re-assess all properties in the county later in the year.

“We’re already seeing the effects of this global health crisis on hiring, income, and construction — all of which dovetail with real estate values,” Kaegi said in the release. “Property owners should know we’re taking these circumstances into account. It’s the right thing to do.”

 During a Zoom interview with Wednesday Journal last week, Kaegi cited the recession of 2008 as a period in which then-Assessor James Houlihan made a downward adjustment in assessment for the entire county. 

Kaegi says the details of the downward adjustment are still being determined, but he said the adjustment will be based on data, including pricing and numbers of transactions for local property sales, as well as models of unemployment and how that relates to those categories. Kaegi says they will also look at how municipalities were impacted by previous crises, such as 9/11 and the recession 10 years ago.

Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar noted the assessor’s COVID-19 changes will affect Oak Park, Riverside, River Forest, Calumet and Palos Townships differently than other municipalities. 

Cook County reassesses properties on a triennial basis, and those townships were reassessed in January 2020 and were in the midst of the appeals process when the virus hit. 

Other townships in the west and south of Cook County, including Proviso and Lyons townships, will be reassessed later this year.

ElSaffar, who noted that his office has already processed more than 2,000 appeals for Oak Park’s roughly 15,000 residential property owners, said that it did not make sense to go through the appeals process now only to have properties reassessed in the late fall or winter.

“They will work on our appeals, which are now due May 1, as normal and then apply the adjustment factor to those post-appeal values,” ElSaffar said.

ElSaffar said that in 2009, Oak Park’s residential properties saw a downward adjustment of 7 percent, but that did not apply to other property classes, and other municipalities saw different adjustments. 

He also cautioned that any downward adjustment will have little effect on tax bills. 

“This is more of a sound bite than a change in reality,” ElSaffar said.

Municipal governments, school districts and other agencies determine how much money they need to fund their operations, and those tax levies will not change.

Kaegi confirmed that the levies set by local taxing bodies will be the same in spite of his COVID-19-based adjustment and that the adjustment is trying to make sure that the levies are divided up in the fairest way.

In Riverside Township, Assessor Fran Sitkiewicz said that the township’s appeals process has been very robust in spite of COVID-19. As in Oak Park, the Riverside Township assessor pivoted after the shutdown to assist residents with appeals over the phone. As of April 15, Sitkiewicz says her office has worked with roughly 1,500 of Riverside Township’s more than 5,000 residential property owners in Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside. 

She says that because of changes made in the county assessor’s office under Kaegi, it has been easier for her office to help the ever-increasing numbers of residents seeking to appeal, since the process can now be completed online. 

“We do appreciate the changes Kaegi is making to make the process accessible and to help us do things online,” Sitkiewicz said. “At least we’ve now gotten through the process and gotten our appeals filed. Now, we’ll have to see what the answer is to those appeals.”

Ripe for reform

After his primary victory in spring of 2018, Kaegi says he had 10 months to prepare for the job as county assessor, during which he spoke to people around the country who are involved in property assessment.

“What we were doing is not what they do in other places,” Kaegi said. “We have a lot to learn from other places. Some of our peers had problems like ours and they’ve fixed them.”

When he started his job in 2019, updates were sorely needed.

“There was one whole city block [in the county building] from Randolph to Washington full of boxes with no filing system other than date received,” Kaegi said. “It symbolized a system that was dysfunctional.” 

He appointed 25 new senior executives, including people with expertise in assessments from other parts of the country. He set about automating an outdated system, implementing many technological innovations. 

Appeals and exemptions can be filed online, and the office also instituted a new call system, new Freedom of Information Act process and a new website. In addition, the office put in place an online RPIE (Real Property Income and Expense) form, which allows commercial property owners to submit rent and income information before the assessment process. 

A legislative change, making the senior exemption renew automatically each year, will also ease the process for seniors.

When asked about the perception that the assessment process was rife with corruption, Kaegi says that perception reflects the point of view of many in Cook County.

“By design or by accident, our system has been extremely regressive,” he said. “It’s done great damage economically and politically to our community.”

Kaegi says it’s part of his job to upend that perception of corruption, noting the reforms he has already put in place that include an ethics ordinance, which prohibits contributions to the assessor from Cook County Assessor Office employees, a published visitor log and an outside auditor. 

Kaegi also expressed an interest in making the typical triennial reassessments more transparent.

“The assessment process has been difficult,” he said. “A lot of key numbers have been hidden. We want to show them and be accountable.”

To that end, the office is now publishing township-level reports on its website for each reassessed township to help property owners understand its methodology, and also created “explainers” online so that people can gain a better understanding of the property tax system. 

They also redesigned assessment notices and other communications from the office to make them easier to read.

Kaegi acknowledged that Cook County property taxes are some of the highest in the nation and advocates a two-pronged approach to relief.

“We need more federal support of K through 12 education, and we need to bring back the SALT (State and Local Tax) deduction,” he said.

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