Ready for reform? Steele-Kaegi match for Cook County assessor revolves around calls for transparency, fairness

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi argues he has instituted key reforms in the relatively obscure office, but Democrat challenger Kari Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, says he’s done more harm than good.

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Kari Steele, left, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in October; Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, in March.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, said the reforms he has helped implement are on the line in his primary election against Democrat Kari Steele, left, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Pat Nabong; Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi contends voters should give him a second term to preserve the reforms he’s made to protect beleaguered homeowners — but Democratic primary challenger Kari Steele argues Kaegi should be ousted to ease the suffering of small “mom-and-pop” business owners.

The two Democrats both see property owners as eager for reform — but they disagree who can deliver it and how.

The relatively obscure office charged with putting values on real estate parcels for taxing purposes has faced the glare of controversy in recent years after it came to light that Kaegi’s predecessor’s methods allowed for wealthier property owners to pay less in property taxes, while those in low-income and minority communities paid far more.

Kaegi argues that he has kept his promise to reform the office, overhauling its technological system and record-keeping, being more transparent to the public by sharing its formulas for assessing property and automating certain exemptions.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times file

Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, says Kaegi has fallen short. The chemist turned real estate broker says recent assessments have unfairly targeted commercial property owners throughout the county, and late assessments are leaving property owners vulnerable.

Kaegi says Steele is taking the side of the big business owners, who are upset they are now being forced to pay their fair share.

“When we came into the office, a gold standard study found that commercial properties across the county were about 40% undervalued,” Kaegi said. “And that disparity got bigger the bigger the commercial property got.”

What that means, Kaegi said, is that small businesses were assessed at market rate or slightly above, but large commercial buildings in downtown were the most undervalued.

“That had a real cost for people,” Kaegi said. “In the city of Chicago, that probably cost the average property owner $1,000 per year more than they should’ve been paying on their property.”

Kaegi said that homeowners and small businesses are now bearing less of the tax burden. He said last year was the first time in a decade that the median residential homeowner in Chicago and in the north suburbs had a lower tax bill than the year before.

Steele said that small businesses in economically distressed neighborhoods have seen their property taxes jump upward of 200% — despite Kaegi’s assertion that small commercial properties aren’t being overvalued.

Kari Steele, the president of the board of commissioners of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, speaks at a news conference last year.

Kari Steele, the president of the board of commissioners of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, speaks at a news conference last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“[Kaegi] is making decisions and not thinking of the long-term effects it is going to have on commercial property owners,” Steele said. “But he is not thinking about the small businesses, the mom-and-pop shops because they are the ones suffering the brunt of being over assessed.”

She has also called Kaegi out on mishandling tax exemptions and assessments going out late.

“I don’t think we are getting the transparency or reform we need,” Steele said.

Steele also has had to respond to criticism that her husband, Maze Jackson, has engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-Latino conversations on his local radio show.

Jackson, who is also a real estate lobbyist, made the comments as he routinely promoted Steele’s campaign on his show, including with a sticker on his laptop visible in a video and podcast version of the show on WBGX-AM 1570.

Jewish and Latino elected officials condemned Jackson’s remarks in letters to Steele, calling on her to reject his words.

“I rebuke any anti-Semitism and hate, and anti-Semitism has no place in my organization or home,” Steele said. “I had a talk with my husband, and he pledged to do better and be more thoughtful on how his words can affect other marginalized groups.”

Steele denies Jackson acted as any sort of surrogate for her campaign and said he has since removed the sticker from his laptop.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary must still run in the November election. No Republicans have filed for the office yet, but the Democrat will face Hyde Park Libertarian Nico Tsatsoulis.

Cardenas challenges Wendt for Board of Review seat

Reform is also an issue in a race for a seat on the Cook County Board of Review, which handles tax appeals.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) is challenging Commissioner Tammy Wendt, a fellow Democrat who ousted the three-seat board’s lone Republican member two years ago.

Cardenas said more transparency is needed in all aspects of the county’s tax system, including the board, which handles appeals to property tax assessments.

“This is an agency that has existed for a long time, and no one knows what it is they really do,” Cardenas said. “This is usually a down ticket vote and it is so vast and very difficult to launch a campaign but it is very important in the scheme of things.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), left; Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt, right.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), left; Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt, right.

Tyler LaRiviere; Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Cardenas accused Wendt of not engaging with the public, not having any minorities on her staff and engaging in nepotism. None of which, he said, breeds trust.

Wendt is best known as a member of former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s criminal defense team. She declined to speak with the Chicago Sun-Times.

The seat they are vying for stretches from as far south as Palos Heights across Chicago’s Southwest Side to as far northwest as Streamwood.

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