Fun and fairness? County Assessor Kaegi seeks to make office more accessible for property owners

A little short of a year in office, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is trying to fix problems of confusion and fairness in property assessments — as well as the agency’s image.

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Fritz Kaegi

Democrat Fritz Kaegi speaks at his primary election night victory celebration in the 2018 race for Cook County assessor. File Photo.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

To the degree that anyone thinks about the Cook County Assessor’s Office at all, two things probably come to mind: a cumbersome, confusing assessment process and controversy over whether low-income homeowners are getting a raw deal.

A little short of a year in office, Assessor Fritz Kaegi is trying to fix those problems — as well as the agency’s image.

Think fun and faces. And better communication.

“I think when most people think of government offices, you know, they immediately think of some place like the DMV or what have you,” Scott Smith, Kaegi’s spokesman said. “But there are some really interesting personalities here, there are some really great people … and that’s the stuff that we want people to see more, because that does help explain more to the office, but it’s in a much different way than people might expect out of an assessor’s office.”

An Instagram account is one of those different ways.The old reliable telephone is another.

The office is planning on launching a call-center by the end of the year largely because “it’s like a black hole when you call this office,” Sarah Garza Resnick, Kaegi’s chief of staff, said.

The new Instagram account is meant to show the fun, human side of what can be seen as a wonky office.

Wonk is to be expected. The chief duty of the assessor’s office is determining the value of the county’s 1.8 million parcels of property for taxing purposes.

And Kaegi campaigned on reforming the way the offices does business, in part because of studies that found that wealth was being transferred from low-income homeowners to their higher income counterparts.

Fritz Kaegi

Fritz Kaegi, then a Democratic candidate for Cook County assessor in 2018. File Photo.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Improvements include automating the senior homestead exemption so elderly homeowners don’t have to trek down to the assessor’s office in the cold and the snow to renew their tax breaks.

“We’re going to continue to do things like that because not only does it help the property owner not have an undue burden but it also will lead to major cost savings, better workflow processes in this office, because we’re not collecting things that people had to handwrite on paper and then have people type into a computer, and then have it be wrong, and on and on and on,” Resnick said. “So that’s where we started.”

For his second year in office, Kaegi and his team plan to hire 17 more people, with most of those positions being put toward beefing up the office’s assessment division.

Those hirings for the next fiscal year will bring the office more in line with other assessor’s offices around the country and raise the ranks of the county’s office in hopes of beginning to reverse the trend of dwindling numbers. In 2010, the office had 397 people, in 2016 there were 342 employees and now 265, according to figures from the office.

“The previous administration’s numbers were decaying every year, and I think the decay was greatest in valuations,” Kaegi said. “You’d have to put the previous administration on the couch [to understand why].”

Smith attributed that decline to the office trying to “look as efficient as possible” from a budget standpoint.

“But at some point you start to cut into bone,” Smith said.

Two reviews of the office basically gave Kaegi and crew a road map for what needed to be fixed during his tenure.

A February 2018 report from the Civic Consulting Alliance, commissioned by Cook County Board President Toni Peckwinkle and former Assessor Joe Berrios,“found that 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.”

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios talks with fellow members of the Cook County Democratic Party in 2018. File Photo.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

A May review by theInternational Association of Assessing Officers, which Kaegi requested,concluded the assessor’s office is understaffed and working with aging technology, old property data and that the valuation methods are in need of improvement and are negatively affecting the accuracy, uniformity and fairness of property assessments.

Because of that report the office will release an annual report about the assessment process.

Increasing the office’s ranks will go hand-in-hand with buying more data collection tools, which will allow the office to better assess commercial properties.

It’ll also mean the work will be digital — the characteristics for commercial properties were handwritten before.

Kaegi and his team still say restoring trust in the office is at the forefront of their goals. Kaegi has been out, speaking at community town halls to answer county residents’ questions. They’re also working at getting out of federal oversight dating back to a 1972 consent decree aimed at removing politics from city and county hiring.

After federal monitor for the assessor, Susan Feibus, said the office was not on an “effective path” to get out of the Shakman decree oversight, Resnick said the office has set up a regular face-to-face meeting with Feibus to continue communicating.

“We can’t just snap our fingers to achieve all of the Shakman objectives immediately, we had to sequence everything right,” Kaegi said. “We’re flying the plane while trying to fix it.”

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