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ENDORSEMENT: Goodbye, Joe, you gotta go. Fritz Kaegi for Cook County assessor

Fritz Kaegi | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Fritz Kaegi | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

No other election this year offers voters a bigger chance to protect their hard-earned money than the Democratic primary for Cook County assessor.

If you think everybody deserves a fair shake when it comes to paying property taxes — and if you think it’s wrong that working-class people pay more than the rich — we urge you to vote for Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi.

And dump the incumbent, Joe Berrios.

Under Berrios, as made clear in a scathing report released Thursday, Cook County suffers from an opaque and unfair system of assessing property that drives up tax bills for working-class people, while lowering them for those with more valuable properties. It also puts people who don’t regularly appeal their taxes at a disadvantage.

But Berrios, who rakes in campaign money from the tax lawyers who get rich off the system, has shown zero enthusiasm for fixing the problem.

Instead, he pads his payroll with relatives.

Kaegi, of Oak Park, who has devoted his career to valuing assets as a financial analyst and mutual fund portfolio manager, is the right person to guide the county toward a better and more just system. He promises to make property taxes fairer by making it harder for wealthy property owners to get hefty and unjustified reductions in their tax bills, which drive up costs for everyone else.

Unlike Berrios, he would show us the data points and algorithms the assessor uses to establish the value of properties, ending the murky secrecy into which favoritism can sink roots.

We strongly endorse Kaegi.

The explosive study released Thursday, by the Civic Consulting Alliance, says Berrios’ office has been putting out property assessments riddled with errors that tilt the system against poorer homeowners while allowing wealthier ones to pocket big reductions. For example, the owner of a $600,000 Chicago home tends to pay an effective tax rate that is 24 percent lower than the owner of a $300,000 house, the study said.

How is that fair? It’s obviously not.

Such a pay-to-play system benefits a universe of property tax lawyers who earn fees appealing assessments on behalf of people who can afford skilled legal representation. Many of those lawyers make political donations to Berrios, meaning he benefits from the broken system as well. Tellingly, Cook County has 20 times — yes, 20 times — more appeals than benchmark counties cited in the study.

Over the years, Berrios had to notice that. Apparently, he just didn’t care. The huge number of appeals on multiple levels is part of the bias in the system. The more appeals, the more lawyers make money, the more they owe Joe.

A good assessor’s office — and there are excellent examples across the country — do a far better job of getting assessments right the first time.

To his credit, when Berrios took office he started getting the property tax bills out on time. But in his more than seven years as assessor, and as a longtime member of the county’s Board of Review before that, Berrios has taken impropriety to new heights. He has blithely defended how his family members wind up first in line for county jobs and promotions — at one point the Sun-Times found 13 family members on state and county payrolls at the same time. Berrios also is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

The county ethics board fined Berrios $10,000 in 2012 for violating county nepotism rules by hiring his sister and son to work for him. Instead of mending his ways, Berrios sued the board, a case he eventually lost while handing taxpayers a hefty bill for legal fees. Just last month, the board fined Berrios and his ward organization $41,000 for pocketing excessive campaign contributions from property tax appeals lawyers, contributions that should have been returned. Berrios promptly filed a lawsuit about that, too, one that could again be paid for by taxpayers.

Kaegi says he won’t accept such donations.

Kaegi, who grew up in Hyde Park and holds an MBA from Stanford, would be a fine candidate even in a race that didn’t feature an ethically challenged opponent. He pledges to ensure his entire staff is diverse and well-trained and says he won’t hire family or insiders. He says he will fully implement Shakman decree requirements to rid the assessor’s office of patronage.

Allow us to emphasize this last point: This endorsement is not just about dumping a bad assessor, it’s about electing a potentially very good one. Kaegi represents quality.

Soaring property taxes are a huge issue in Cook County. A capable and ethical assessor would at least ensure the burden is spread fairly.

Goodbye, Joe. Hello, Fritz.


When Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi visited the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Jan. 26, we asked him to introduce himself to voters. Here was Kaegi’s response:


EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next few weeks, the Sun-Times will continue to offer its endorsements in competitive Chicago-area primaries, from governor down to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, including Cook County races.

To read the endorsements we have made so far — in 12 congressional races and the Cook County  Democratic primary for assessor — and to read candidate questionnaires and watch video introductions, go online to our 2018 Illinois Primary Voting Guide.

Election Day is March 20. Early voting at satellite facilities begins March 5.

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