The heated race for Cook County Assessor is a case study on Chicago-style politics. Fritz Kaegi, the reform-minded incumbent who was left with a mess to clean up by his predecessor, is facing a challenge by Kari Steele, a politically connected commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which manages wastewater treatment and floodwater mitigation. (Steele’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
The assessor’s job is not one most people dream of, unless you get a kick out of determining the value of close to two million parcels of land in Cook County. Add to that all the repairs needed to fix a broken system left behind by Joe Berrios who hired his relatives to work for the board, accepted excessive donations from property-tax appeals lawyers, and disproportionately taxed homeowners in poor communities over rich and politically connected developers.
That’s the system Kaegi says he inherited back in 2018 after Berrios’s ouster. He sat down with the Reader to talk about what changes he’s made since and to explain why Cook County voters should give him another chance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kelly Garcia: What does the Cook County assessor do?
Fritz Kaegi: It provides the way that we’ve split up the bill for the cost of government around here. In Chicago, there’s about somewhere between $7.25 and $7.5 billion of property taxes that have to be collected every year.
We figure out how we split that bill amongst all the people who own property in Cook County. So it’s really an office that’s about equity. How we split that bill is driven by our estimates of the market value of each person’s property. And the key is that the biggest building owners are like the person at a dinner who ordered a 40-ounce steak and a lot of sides, and we compare them with the person who just ordered an appetizer or a side salad. How are you splitting up the bill amongst them?
The key to evaluating how an assessor is doing is making sure that you’re estimating the market value of all of those properties fairly and accurately, without bias or favoritism, so that you’re not moving the burden from one group to another. That’s the most important thing that this office does.
Residents from Pilsen and Little Village often tell me they’re facing a burden of higher property taxes, which is pricing them out of the community. How are you addressing this?
I think the greatest inequity in the system is that under my predecessor and for years before that, big buildings were undervalued, so that people who lived in Pilsen and Little Village were picking up the tab for them.
The gold standard in our industry looked at commercial transactions that happened in 2018, [which was] the year before we came into office. It found countywide that commercial properties were 40 percent undervalued, and in Chicago, it was 50 percent, and that undervaluation got bigger the bigger the building got. So basically, small commercial properties in places like Pilsen and Little Village tended to be valued more closely to the mark, and the biggest properties were hugely undervalued. So those little commercial properties were picking up the tab for the big buildings downtown, just like homeowners were in Pilsen and Little Village.
Now, I think there’s another part that I have less control over that people might want to blame me for, which is when gentrification drives up the values of properties. And eventually the assessment system catches up if we’re doing our job, because you don’t want to systematically undervalue some properties because then you’d be passing on the tab to others, to people who live in neighborhoods where prices have not been going up.
But we’re not an engine of gentrification, we just catch up to the gentrification that’s already happened. What we can do to mitigate that is make sure everyone gets their [property tax] exemption. We’ve really made a big push for seniors who are over 65 whose income is under $65,000 a year. They can get the senior freeze, which basically locks your assessment in place.
The omnibus affordable-housing bill is going into place this year, and it’s going to be incentivizing the renovation and construction of affordable housing that’s tied to people’s incomes, rather than market rents. Because gentrification really puts a lot of pressure on renters.
What have you accomplished in your first term?
Last year was the first time in close to a decade that the average homeowner in Chicago saw their property tax bill fall. Last year it was a 1 percent reduction in homeowners’ share of the burden, and now we’re talking about 9 percent with this reassessment. [Editor’s note: one-third of properties in Cook County have their taxes reassessed each year; in 2021, properties in Chicago were that third.]
We’re also proud of the fact that county-wide, homeowners’ property taxes were up just 1 percent each of the last two years, which really throttled back much greater growth than had been seen over the previous two decades.
In the first year our assessments were sent out, the gold standard in our field found they were within industry standards for accuracy and equity for the first time ever in the history of our office.
We also replaced the 40-year-old computer program that was the backbone to our system. In 2020, we put in place an online appeals system and online exemptions system. In 2021, we replaced the backbone of the system; that has allowed other gains such as automatic renewal of the exemption for seniors.
We are winning awards for this stuff. This office did not win awards before. We won awards from the International Association of Assessing Officers for our public outreach during the pandemic. We won awards from the National Association of Counties for the digital tools that we created.
For the longest time, this office was a source of mistrust and inequality and corruption, because it was used as a platform for favoritism, for nepotism, and for punishments for political enemies. On day one, I put in place an ethics order that forbids conflict of interest and requires extensive disclosures by our employees. It makes me the first assessor in the history of this office not to take donations from property tax appeals lawyers and appraisers who practice before us.
Why are you running for reelection?
The work that we’re doing is going to be keeping more resources in the neighborhoods with average people, and we can continue to make progress on that. Keeping money in the neighborhoods where it never should have been leaving is so important to not only the health of our neighborhoods, but also for people’s livelihoods and for their incomes.
That’s why it’s meaningful, and we cannot go back to the way it was. This  reassessment in Chicago is on track to be keeping more than $600 million a year in our neighborhoods. But that could all be reversed if you bring back favoritism to this office. The enemies of the reforms that I’ve been putting into place are backing my opponent—the club of big-building owners, the tax lawyers, people who worked for Joe Berrios, those folks, they want this office broken again, and we cannot go back to that. There’s too much at stake.
The work that we’ve done has only been made possible by the public mandate. They were the ones who made it possible. That mandate that brought me into this office, and I’ve been carrying forward that message. And that is how we’re bringing about change: we go to every room, we talk to everybody, even the people who might not have been with us to carry this forward, and we’re winning people over. And with the public’s backing, we’ll be able to do that again for four more years.
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