Fritz Kaegi has a little less than two weeks before becoming Cook County assessor, a position that in most other parts of the country is a largely unknown job overlooked by most of the public — Kaegi says he’d like to make it that way here, too. Kaegi is a resident of nearby Oak Park.
Kaegi’s goal is not to fly under the radar when he takes office on Dec. 3; his idea is to make the assessor’s office and its business so transparent and routine that it becomes trusted and free of the consternation most building owners have historically dealt with concerning their property tax assessments.
In the March primary, Kaegi soundly defeated incumbent Joe Berrios, who also served as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and faced no serious opponent in the general election.
The success of the political outsider — Kaegi previously worked as an asset manager for Columbia Wanger Asset Management — was a direct challenge to the power structure of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Now Kaegi is working to make good on his campaign promises to fix a broken assessment system, which he argued was unfair and benefitted wealthy property owners.
“Everyone in the Chicago area has their own story about this office and it’s almost always bad,” Kaegi said. “In most of the United States no one has any idea who their assessor is.”
Kaegi has recently made it a habit of asking people in other parts of the country, and blank stares are usually the response.
“There’s really no reason why you should know that. I talked to people who are really high-level real estate investors on the East Coast, and I ask them, ‘Do you know who Carmela Quintos is?’ And I’ve never had a single person say yes to me,” he said. “She is the assessor of New York, and New York’s assessment system works just fine. It’s in the background.”
Kaegi is busy building his team now — one that has to be lean and mean — and Kaegi said he’s looking nationwide and locally. Moving away from hiring political insiders is his goal.
The assessor’s office is among the smallest in the country in terms of employees and properties in the system. Kaegi said the office is “dramatically understaffed” with about 280 people to handle about 1.8 million parcels.
That’s compared to Los Angeles, for instance, which assesses the value of about 2.4 million properties with a staff of some 1,400 people. Harris County, which covers the city of Houston is the next largest jurisdiction from Cook County with a little over 1 million parcels and 600 people to handle the assessments, Kaegi noted.
He said the small staff is only one of the problems in the assessment system. The inaccurate assessments, which trigger the costly appeals that Kaegi and others have said benefit wealthy property owners because of their ability to hire appeals lawyers, is also in part due to bad data and an inexplicable methodology for assessing properties.
“We think the best bang for the buck is better data and better training, so that’s where our budgetary asks are today,” he said, acknowledging the “financial straits” the county faces. “So when we’re making budgetary asks to folks at the Cook County budget office and the board, it’s really around data and investing in skills, in staff. That will make the biggest difference because that doesn’t entail any additional operating costs but really makes us more effective in future with every dollar we put in.”
Kaegi believes the recent round of assessments under Berrios’ watch — conducted in conjunction with county contractor Tyler Technologies and Civic Consulting Alliance — was an improvement for residential properties, at least, over prior assessments, but he is still working to build a better mousetrap.
On the campaign trail, Kaegi argued for adopting a methodology touted by the MacArthur Foundation, but he says the future assessment methodology will come from a variety of sources. It will be transparent and easy to replicate and verify. Kaegi plans to show his work.
“First of all, we have to invest in better data about homes and about the commercial properties because no amount of good modeling will help us if we have terrible data about the underlying properties,” he said.
He also aims to focus on bringing equity and transparency to commercial properties. Although the accuracy of residential property assessments improved in the latest round, the same problems remained with assessments of commercial properties.
“Statistically, this is the worst performing commercial assessment jurisdiction in the United States among large counties,” he said.
What does this all mean for Oak Parkers and others in the western suburbs?
“With higher-level homeowners, the thing they don’t like, we think, is all the hidden costs that come with appealing,” Kaegi said. “You have to pay a commission to someone if they’re doing your appeal.
That’s money out of your pocket, and people want to feel better that this number is coming out right the first time, being done transparently and fairly and equally with everybody and no one’s getting special deals or favors, so that’s what we’re committed to.”
He said people in Oak Park also know that eventually, if there’s a dramatic underassessment of downtown commercial properties and that changes, then they will benefit.
“Even the people who are doing appeals don’t feel good about it. It makes them feel like why couldn’t this number have been good the first time?”
Kaegi said his approach is to fix problems on the front end, so appeals are no longer needed.