Early warning: Cook County property tax bills will be late next year

Assessment delays portend problems for local governments that rely on timely tax payments. Board of Review member Larry Rogers Jr. blames Assessor Fritz Kaegi.

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Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office blames the expected late tax bills next year on a computer system switchover.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office blames the expected late tax bills next year on a computer system switchover.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Cook County officials are sending an early warning that next year’s second-installment property tax bills will be seriously delayed — with a potential due date later than taxpayers have seen in a decade.

The delay could cause headaches for school districts and other taxing bodies that rely on property taxes being remitted by the Aug. 1 deadline to meet their financial obligations.

When payments are late, taxing bodies often must resort to short-term borrowing to pay the bills until the county distributes their share of taxes. The interest on those borrowings can become an extra burden on taxpayers.

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Officials say they are looking at a potential 2022 second-installment payment deadline in December — possibly even spilling into 2023.

When tax bills are that late, the second installment can bump up against the first-installment bill for the following year, which typically goes out in January.

While some taxpayers might be just as happy to hold on to their money a little longer, others can have trouble making both payments in the shorter time frame. The amount of taxes owed is unaffected.

Cook County hasn’t faced this scenario since 2010, when tax bills were due to be paid by Nov. 1. Before then, tax bill due dates routinely missed the Aug. 1 legal deadline, with the latest, in 2009, coming Dec. 13.

Since then, getting tax bills out on schedule became a point of emphasis for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Assessor Joseph Berrios. Except for a two-month delay last year blamed on the COVID pandemic, the county has met the Aug. 1 deadline every year since 2011.

Next year’s delay is being attributed to problems with first-term Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s switchover to the county’s new “integrated” property tax system.

The centralized database attempts to stitch together the record-keeping and processes of the assessor, the Cook County Board of Review, the county clerk and treasurer. It will replace a computer system everyone agrees is hopelessly outdated.

The assessor’s office went live with the new technology this year, which happens to be the year the assessor is performing its triennial reassessment of real estate values in the city of Chicago, its toughest task.

The result has been rocky, with the assessor months behind on finishing its work and passing along the final assessments to the Board of Review so that it can begin accepting appeals filed by taxpayers.

Scott Smith, a spokesman for Kaegi, acknowledged the delays but said they were anticipated because of the technology changes.

“These are unavoidable delays,” Smith said. “The county was very aware of it.”

He said he doesn’t believe projections of a possible 2023 payment due date are accurate, with late 2022 more likely.

I wasn’t planning to lay blame, but Larry Rogers Jr., the longest-serving Board of Review commissioner, is happy to.

“This is squarely in Fritz Kaegi’s lap” said Rogers, who thinks the assessor shouldn’t have committed to the new data system until it was proven. “This is purely an implementation failure. He is the reason tax bills will go out late. He has failed to get his work done timely. He needs to own it.”

County commissioners seemed caught off guard at a committee hearing last month when they learned tax bills could go out so late.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri said it’s a “disaster” for taxing bodies when bills are late.

“This is one of the highest priorities we have,” Silvestri said. “The goal has to be to get these tax bills out on time.”

That might no longer be possible.

At that same committee hearing, Board of Review Chief Deputy Commissioner William O’Shields warned it typically takes his office 10 to 11 months to complete its work and might take 12 months this time, with a record 290,000 appeals expected from taxpayers.

At that point, the assessor hadn’t transmitted its final assessment data for any of the county’s 38 townships, a necessary precursor to the board starting its work. Since then, the assessor has turned over its calculations for seven suburban townships, three of them just this week.

Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt has suggested the county investigate whether it would be more cost effective to hire a consultant or extra staff to help the board expedite its work. By law, every taxpayer filing an appeal is entitled to a hearing, her chief of staff Todd Thielmann notes. There are no shortcuts.

Smith said the assessor has offered to lend staff to the Board of Review to assist with its work. He also said the delays will be a one-time problem.

This will heat up when all those local government officials find out they won’t be getting their tax money on time.

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