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Steele-Kaegi match? Water treatment board leader launches challenge to Cook County assessor

Kari Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, announced her Democratic primary challenge to Fritz Kaegi in a video, arguing that the assessor has “been long on promises, but short on results.”

Kari Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, left, speaks during a news conference in May; Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, poses for a portrait in July. 
Kari Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, left, speaks during a news conference in May; Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, poses for a portrait in July. 
Pat Nabong; Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file.

The head of the Cook County wastewater treatment board announced Monday she hopes to oust Assessor Fritz Kaegi, pledging to bring stability to the property tax assessment office.

Kari Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, launched her Democratic primary challenge to the county assessor in a video released Monday, arguing that Kaegi has “been long on promises but short on results.”

“He promised he would make property taxes fair for working people, he promised to help our seniors, he promised to be a competent manager,” Steele says in a nearly two-minute announcement video.

“But a [Chicago] Sun-Times investigation revealed that he badly mismanaged the senior citizen tax rates program, and homeowners got hurt. And I don’t need to tell you that working families still pay more than their fair share.”

As assessor, Steele says she won’t just “talk about it — I’ll be about it” when it comes to making changes to the office and providing stability to businesses “so they can plan ahead with a strong understanding of what it will cost to run their business” without forcing working families to “pick up the slack.”

The water reclamation district treats wastewater and handles storm-water management agency for Chicago and 128 suburban communities throughout Cook County.

Kaegi’s office admitted to the Sun-Times Watchdogs in June that it’s made numerous errors in calculating the property tax savings under the senior freeze program, mistakes the office blamed on issues with a mainframe computer often undervaluing properties.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Chair Kari K. Steele in 2018.
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Chair Kari K. Steele in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

In response to that investigation, Kaegi’s office announced earlier this month it would slash some of the property tax breaks the Sun-Times spotlighted.

In a statement, Kaegi said he’s “proud of our work transforming the old, broken property tax system into one based on fairness, transparency, and ethics.

“There’s much more to be done to achieve our vision for a fair and just system, but homeowners in Chicago and the suburbs are starting to see the positive effects,” the first term assessor said. “Residential tax bills are up just 1% county-wide for the second straight year, the average property tax bill in Chicago is down this year, and appeals are on track to decline for a third straight year.

Cook County assessor Fritz in his office at the Cook County Building in July.
Cook County assessor Fritz in his office at the Cook County Building in July.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

“I look forward to a robust conversation about how we continue toward a more equitable future and leave the corruption of the past behind us.”

Kaegi defeated longtime Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios in the Democratic primary in 2018, and went on to win the November election. His platform then focused heavily on modernizing the office as well as the county’s imbalanced property tax system, which taxes the wealthy at a lower rate than average homeowners, according to studies released at the time.

One study, commissioned by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Berrios, analyzed more than one million residential properties countywide.

That study found “the residential assessment system is more variable and more regressive than agreed upon industry standards, causing a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”