Reporting on property tax breaks obscures the full story of assessor’s office reforms: Kaegi

When the Sun-Times reported that some people received tax breaks they shouldn’t have, it didn’t fully explain how our process addresses this problem and how the changes my administration enacted are making a difference for taxpayers.

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Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi tried projecting unemployment neighborhood by neighborhood and using that estimation of pandemic-related job losses to just how much he’d lower every homeowner’s property assessment by. But then housing prices quickly rebounded.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi in his office in the County Building.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times file

In its recent story about property tax exemptions, the Sun-Times focuses on salacious details and obscures the ways the Cook County assessor’s office is addressing the larger problem.

I have made transparency a hallmark of my office because of the favoritism of the past. Our office is running more efficiently and fairly than before. Our dedicated public servants deserve praise for these achievements, not sensationalized reporting that suggests otherwise.

Since I took office, our erroneous exemptions department has forced more than 9,800 properties to pay back $15 million for tax breaks they did not deserve. The nine cases in the Sun-Times story, most of which predate my administration, should not obscure this basic fact.

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Our erroneous exemptions department is funded not by taxpayers, but by the interest and penalties accrued by these cases. The rest of the money collected is returned to schools, libraries and other agencies to keep property taxes from increasing further.

When the Sun-Times reported that some people received tax breaks they shouldn’t have, it didn’t fully explain how our process addresses this problem and how the changes my administration enacted are making a difference for taxpayers.

The assessor’s office now reviews exemption files annually to remove deceased persons from our records. We replaced the 40-year-old mainframe that led to many of these errors with a modern system, giving Cook County property owners the efficiency and technology they deserve. Finally, the erroneous exemption department is running at a surplus under my administration, which saves taxpayers money.

The assessor’s office reviews all exemptions every three years to check for errors. State statute allows the office to recover up to six years of erroneous exemptions, which is the exact number of years of “tax breaks” the “dead mobster” in the Sun-Times headline received. A hearing has been scheduled to move this case toward resolution.

In obscuring the above details and in choosing a headline for this story that, in our view, connects the office to organized crime, the Sun-Times misled readers and eroded public trust.

No one should expect the assessor’s office to do criminal background checks on taxpayers or to take action based on their professional or personal lives. It’s easy to see how this could become a dangerous slippery slope toward using a public office for political retribution. These practices will never be a part of my administration.

Reporters and journalists are an indispensable part of our democracy. We need them to keep a watchful eye on the government and report wrongdoing when it occurs. Through the choices it made in this story, the Sun-Times failed in this duty and undermined its trust with its readers.

Fritz Kaegi, Cook County Assessor

Tearing down housing to create a yard

Regarding the recent letter from Emily Talen on whether the well-off should be allowed to demolish real estate to create open space: Last time I checked, Ms. Talen, this is a free country where you can own property and more than one lot.

We have lived on our block for 31 years, and both of us have contributed much to the education of children and also started businesses that allow people to work hard and buy places to live. I was a Chicago Public Schools teacher, a children’s museum volunteer, helped found the first dog park in Chicago, and am a board member and PAWS Chicago volunteer.

We care about this city, so don’t tell us that working hard and paying with your own money, we shouldn’t have the right to enrich our neighborhood, beautify and make our street very desirable by having a yard. Our neighbor’s house was in very bad shape, and they were thrilled we made the lot beautiful. They moved to a much nicer place.

In 31 years of living on my street, not one person has said, “I wish more people could live on this block.”

Judith Tullman, Lincoln Park

The wrong way to value equity

It is en vogue for school districts to espouse how they value equity. Indian Prairie School District 204 in Naperville/Aurora is no different. But their redrawing of the district’s boundaries shows that equity is furthest from their mind. IPSD 204 has a district low-income percentage population of 17%.

The latest map proposed by the administration recommended an increase in the low-income percentage at Gombert Elementary from 35% to 51%. That is three times the district average and further segregates the school by income. Currently, Georgetown Elementary is 59% low income, more than three times the district average.

This is not valuing equity.

Of the top five largest unit school districts, IPSD has the lowest amount of low-income students. Yet they seem to purposefully be segregating students by income.

They are going backward, not forward.

Alisha Smith, Aurora

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