On Feb. 22, Peter Gariepy appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County treasurer in the March 2018 Democratic primary. Please see his response in the video below.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent candidates seeking the nomination for Cook County treasurer a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the county. Accountant Peter Gariepy submitted the following responses:
QUESTION: The contract for collection of property taxes, now done by Chase Bank, soon will be up for renewal. How much of a float does the bank get? What guidelines will you use to get the best value for the taxpayers in the next contract?
ANSWER: Depending on the size of the payment in question and the financial institution from which the payment is being made, the float can be up to 10 days, but is often less.
Under the existing arrangement with Chase, Cook County Taxpayers pay $0.75 for every payment received through a Chase branch. With the number of taxpayers choosing to pay online steadily rising every year and Chase rumored to not be interested in renewing their agreement with the treasurer under terms that are equally or more favorable to taxpayers, I favor another option that would continue to allow taxpayers to make in-person property tax payments at locations scattered across Cook County.
For the next contract, I will reach out to the municipalities within Cook County that accept in-person payment for utility bills. While not as abundant as the number of Chase branches throughout Cook County, these payment locations are likely to already be utilized by individuals and businesses that prefer to pay bills in-person, and will be familiar with the locations and process of paying in-person at these municipal offices. I am confident that the treasurer and the municipal payment offices throughout the county would reach a fair agreement that would yield a financially beneficial deal for county taxpayers, while not materially inconveniencing those who prefer to make their semi-annual property tax payments in-person.
Running for: Cook County Treasurer
Political/civic background: Special Projects Coordinator for Raja Krishnamoorthi’s successful campaign for Illinois’ 8th Congressional District. Former Treasurer and current Board Member of the East Village Association. Treasurer and Commissioner of Special Service Area No. 29 (the West Town Commission). Auxiliary Board of Christ The King Jesuit College Preparatory School in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Past Associate Board Member of the Center for Economic Progress.
Occupation: Certified Public Accountant
Education: Northwestern University, Master of Science (Civil Engineering)
Fordham University, Master of Science (Taxation) and Bachelor of Science (Public Accounting)
Campaign website: peterforcookcounty.com
QUESTION: What community benefits should the treasurer consider in determining where to deposit county dollars? Should more be done using the deposit of county dollars to benefit areas that need economic investment?
ANSWER: When deciding where to deposit county tax dollars, the treasurer, as with every decision made in the office, should be focused on generating additional value for taxpayers, particularly those of whom live or do business in areas of Cook County that have historically had more difficulty attracting capital and the support of financial institutions.
If elected, I will work with federally insured credit unions and community banks in underserved areas of the county to make strategic deposits in institutions with a track record of supporting prospective homeowners and small businesses, while at all times protecting taxpayer dollars.
The bottom line is that the tax dollars of the county’s taxpayers should be working for the residents and small businesses of Cook County in as many ways as possible, and one more way to do that is by depositing county dollars in financial institutions with a history of service to Cook County’s taxpayers who have most often been overlooked.
QUESTION: What are your plans or ideas to improve the operations of the office?
ANSWER: To improve the operations of the Cook County Treasurer’s office, I will pursue the creation of an itemized taxpayer receipt that goes far beyond the current tax bill’s limited breakdown that stops at the taxing district level. I will deposit Cook County’s tax dollars into financial institutions that serve traditionally underserved areas of the county, and I will work with the Illinois State Legislature to end the punitive practice of selling the tax debt of impoverished Illinoisans to private collectors who have no interest in the health of our communities.
Most of us interact with how our tax dollars are spent on a regular basis. Public schools, local roads, parks, emergency services, and other amenities in Cook County are primarily funded by local property taxes. Like many people, I am most concerned with the potholes in my neighborhood, the resources that support first responders in my community, the public schools my 1-year old daughter will one-day attend, and the nearby park that my family and I utilize.
Currently, a Cook County taxpayer who wants to see how their household is directly served by their property tax dollars has to tediously assemble information from all layers of their respective taxing districts, of which there are roughly 2,200 throughout Cook County, with the average taxpayer dollars spread across twelve taxing districts.
To be clear, any information not provided in a useful format is done so needlessly. Do not let anyone mislead you into believing that you cannot understand how your tax dollars align with your priorities, because you can and you absolutely should. The existing system seeks to placate taxpayers with barely enough information so it can be called transparent. When I go in for my annual physical, the doctor doesn’t just hand me a sheet with the results of my blood work and says, “Here, I’m being transparent.” Instead, the doctor uses the raw data to objectively inform me in a clear and useful way that empowers me with information about my health. Taxpayers deserve the same useful transparency on their individual property taxes.
Making a tax bill easy to understand to the point of being enlightening is a matter of will and creativity that falls on the shoulders of the Cook County Treasurer, an office which as the countywide collector of property taxes is optimally positioned to embrace the mission of financial literacy for every taxpayer in the county.
Additionally, property tax bills should disclose the increase attributed to the existence of Cook County’s hundreds of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts for those taxpayers whose property is not located within a TIF. In 2016, the City of Chicago’s 145 TIFs absorbed $561 million of property tax dollars, which meant that to meet the needs of the city’s budget, taxpayers had to fill the $561 million gap created by the existence of those TIFs. That is an example of the information that every property taxpayer deserves to have at their fingertips when calling their elected official with an issue about how their tax dollars are being spent.
Understandably, no one is happy with any bill, whether it’s for groceries, utilities, or property taxes. But with a clear connection between money paid and value received, it is possible to be more comfortable with a bill. This kind of transparency is the first step to providing equal access to every taxpayer. Whether you buy one item at the grocery store or a whole cartful, you can read your itemized receipt and clearly see what you received for your money. You might feel that the price of a particular item is too high, but you likely do not feel robbed by the entire grocery store.
A person does not need a background in tax, law, or municipal finance to be able to understand if he or she is receiving adequate value for taxes paid. Residents should not be made to feel stupid or pressured into being quiet if they have a sincere question or concern. By presenting all taxpayers with information in an easily digestible format, more people of all levels of education, income, and experience will have the confidence to step forward and advocate to their elected officials for how they want their tax dollars to be used.
I will never have every good idea, yet I owe it to every constituent and myself to do the best job possible with the most informed perspective possible. So, if I am fortunate enough to be elected, I will convene an independent, volunteer advisory panel with representation from organized labor, clean government advocates, community activists, academia and others groups representing large constituencies. The advisory panel’s recommendations will be made public, so that should I choose to not accept one of their suggestions, the public will be able to ask why chose a different direction.
I will work with the Illinois State Legislature to abolish the annual scavenger tax sale for residential properties. Rather than sell the tax debt of a Cook County resident to a private collector with likely no interest in the well-being of the property or the neighborhood in which it resides; I would prefer to see tax-delinquent homes transferred to Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA). The CCLBA can then sell the property directly to a homeowner who will be far more invested in the property and the community. In those cases where a dutiful renter is at risk of being displaced by a landlord’s tax delinquency, I will work to give the renter the first right of refusal to acquire the property.
Currently, the treasurer’s office uses a casino grade camera system mounted in the office’s ceiling to surveil every employee and taxpayer in the office. Employees and taxpayers do not know when they are being videotaped or who is watching the tapes or live feed. I believe this camera system goes far beyond what is appropriate to protect taxpayer assets in the office and is an ongoing invasion of every employee’s right to reasonable privacy in the workplace.
Additionally, women who handle cash in the Cook County Treasurer’s office are currently required to wear a smock that covers their pockets out of suspicion that they will steal money. This practice is sexist and discriminatory because men in the same position do not have to wear a smock. No employee should be required to wear a smock as a mark of suspicion and not being trusted by your employer and in this case, your county Government. If I am elected, I will eliminate that insulting policy, which presumes guilt and was instituted during a time when the office routinely handled large amounts of cash, on my first day in office.
While I believe that I have the right skill set to reinvent and bring new value to the Cook County Treasurer’s office, it is unfortunate and concerning that very few people seek this office. In a county of 5.25 million people, my opponent and I are the only people from either party to seek the office and that minimal interest is a problem when one considers that I am the first Democrat to run against my opponent for this office in 20 years. The reason that this office has not been regularly and seriously sought is because it has not performed to a level that would routinely attract strong candidates.
I am running for treasurer to shake up an office that has not scratched the surface of its enormous potential to demonstrate how taxpayers should be treated and empowered by their government.
There are very specific problems I want to be a part of solving, and right now, the Cook County Treasurer’s office is the most direct route to solving them. If I am fortunate enough to be elected, the best way to leave the office better than when I entered it, is to make sure that it is regularly attracting the most innovative and driven minds to run for it, which has not been the case for two decades.
QUESTION: Does the office of county treasurer need to be an elective office? Should the treasurer be appointed, or should the office’s functions be combined with another office?
ANSWER: The function of the Cook County Treasurer should be performed by an elected official who is directly accountable to the taxpayers of Cook County; as to whether the function of Cook County Treasurer should be merged with another countywide elected office, I support an independent audit of all county-wide offices to generate recommendations for consolidation that would streamline functions and result in savings to taxpayers.
To address ongoing cost overruns that contribute to rising tax bills, the offices of the Cook County Treasurer and the Cook County Clerk should be examined for a potential merger. The projected merits and challenges that would result from merging the offices should be shared publicly and presented to the Cook County Board of Commissioners, who will hopefully place the measure on the ballot as soon as reasonably possible so the public can ultimately decide.
QUESTION: Let’s say you get a call from a ward committeeman who politically supports you. The committeeman tells you of an individual who has worked hard for you and would like to be considered for a job. What do you say?
ANSWER: If elected, I will require that all jobs in the Cook County Treasurer’s office be posted on the county website, and that applications be initially submitted to the Bureau of Human Resources for vetting. For both exempt and non-exempt positions, I would want all applicants to undergo an arm’s length vetting process to ensure that, at the very least, he or she is deemed qualified to hold the taxpayer funded position for which they are applying and that the applicant would not violate the existing Cook County Employment Plan or the spirit of Shakman Decree compliance. Only after receiving qualified candidates from Bureau of Human Resources, would the treasurer’s office proceed with the interview process.
Therefore, should a politically supportive committeeman inform me of an individual who would like to be considered for a job, I would politely ask the committeeman to have the individual apply through the county website. Should the Bureau of Human Resources deem the applicant qualified and Shakman-compliant, their application would be moved onto the hiring manager within the treasurer’s office. The hiring manager, whose responsibility it would be to make sure their employees’ work is done correctly and on-time would have the authority to hire the applicant they feel would provide the highest quality and best value for taxpayers. I would be unfair for me to hold managers accountable when they are supported by employees lacking the skills or drive to do the job.
If elected treasurer, my job will be to serve the taxpayers of Cook County in the most efficient, innovative and cost-effective manner possible. In order to operate the office in a manner that best respects the faith of the voters and the hard work of the taxpayers whose money we would handle, I cannot in good conscience stock the office’s taxpayer funded payroll with people whose primary qualification is that I owed them or someone else a favor.
QUESTION: The County Board in 2017 trimmed funding for all county offices headed by independently elected officials. Is the funding for the treasurer’s office sufficient to permit the office to function effectively?
ANSWER: The treasurer’s office is sufficiently funded due to a separate stream of money that was withheld from the County Board’s requested budget cuts in 2017.
Due to the nature of its operation, the treasurer’s office is positioned to collect commercial user fees paid by banking and mortgage firms. The funds generated by those fees are expected to bring in more than $11.9 million this year and accounted for more than $11.6 million last year. In the midst of the county’s historic budget crisis in 2017, the treasurer did not offer to return a single dollar of those fees, all of which are generated by a taxpayer funded office and thus belong to the taxpayers, to alleviate the crushing budget cuts that led to 321 county employees losing their jobs at the start of the holiday season.
During the budget hearings, the treasurer boasted about being able to reduce the office’s budget by 25% without reducing staff, which can only mean that the treasurer’s budget was initially bloated by 25% or more. Even in the wake of 321 county employees losing their jobs and other county officials cutting deep to do their part, the treasurer excused her office from the shared sacrifice and did not put any of the funds from the commercial user fees, which rightfully belong to the county’s taxpayers, back into the pot to be allocated by the Cook County Board for the greater good.
QUESTION: In recent years, the treasurer’s office has contracted out a part of its workload. Has that created more room to reduce the number of full-time employees in the office?
ANSWER: Yes, I believe that the reduction of full-time employees and the escalation of contracted work is a conscious decision driven by the politically desirable perception of reducing headcount at the expense of loyal employees whose duties remain and must then be contracted out.
The treasurer should only contract outside professional services for essential functions of the office that existing personnel are incapable of performing. No contracting whatsoever should take place for party-planning or social events that add no value for taxpayers. If elected, I will self-impose a mandate that all contracted services will accompany a narrative explanation to the Cook County Office of the Independent Inspector General in order to justify to the county’s watchdog the specific need that the contractor would fulfill and why the need cannot be met by one or more of the office’s existing employees.
It is far too easy for friends and political supporters to be hired as contractors for unnecessary functions at the expense of taxpayers. If elected, I will take every possible measure to ensure that any contractors hired are done so only in cases of absolute necessity and with adequate disclosure to the county’s Independent Inspector General so that should suspicion arise, the county’s official watchdog with have a written and dated explanation on hand.