By AARON GETTINGER
In his first Hyde Park campaign event since the March primary election, native son Fritz Kaegi, the Democratic nominee for Cook County Assessor, discussed his goals should he win and expressed support for an Illinois progressive income tax to remedy locals’ chronic discontent with taxes at a Small Business Advocacy Council (SBAC) forum Wednesday at the Hyatt Place Hotel, 5225 S. Harper Ave.
Real estate agent Dwayne Hirsch, who moderated the event, said Kaegi’s Republican opponent, Joseph Paglia, was invited to the forum but did not respond to the SBAC’s invitation.
Kaegi said his goal, if elected, is to be “ethical, transparent and fair.” He said the outgoing scandal-plagued incumbent, former Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios had used the office as a “cash cow for a political machine” by rewarding campaign donors, including property tax appeal lawyers, with disproportionately low property assessments.
“No matter how much your home is worth, everyone should be paying the same rate,” said Kaegi, who defeated Berrios 46 to 34 percent in the primary election. “This is how it works in the rest of the country; this is how we should do it here.”
Berrios’ systematic over-appraisal of certain properties, especially those owned by people of color on the South and West sides, was the subject of a Chicago Tribune investigative series earlier this year.
Kaegi promised an expansive utilization of information — transactional data, satellite and three-dimensional imagery, home photos on listing services, government-controlled mortgage services companiesFreddie Mac and Fannie Mae appraisal databases — to create a model to estimate housing prices, promising to be a “good steward” over the process to limit bias over time. He also stressed that the Assessor’s Office, as an executive agency, is independent and not beholden to any political powers.
He said downtown Chicago would be reassessed, adding that it was “over 50 percent under-assessed” currently, and said new evaluation models in the rest of the city would take “a couple of years” to be implemented, as one-third of Cook County is assessed annually.
When asked if he would retroactively compensate property owners who had been over-assessed, Kaegi said such action is outside of the County Assessor’s purview. He promised to open the Office’s files so that “whoever is responsible for this can face the consequences for it” and said his campaign felt “a great urgency” to implement reforms should he be elected.
Kaegi said the Assessor’s Office staff wanted to be “professionally led” and expressed optimism about the incorporating technilogical developments — “computing power is getting cheaper, there’s more and more data out there, better and better models” — and other nationwide assessors’ offices’ ingenuities into the Cook County Assessor’s work.
Regarding the Cook County culture of property tax appeals and constituants’ role cynicism, Kaegi said, “What we need to do to change the culture is to convince people that, ‘Hey, the guys who are in the Assessor’s Office now, they’re trying to get it right the first time, and they’re taking out the favoritism; they’re taking out the bias.’”
Kaegi also discussed Illinois tax policy and the ramifications of the state’s declining population.
He said that struggling communities, especially in the South Suburbs, are especially reliant on property taxes in the face of declining tax revenue from retail and industry to finance local schools. Kaegi said the Assessor’s Office cannot change this and argued for Illinois to enact a progressive income tax and revenue sharing for public education, especially as the state ranks last in spending on schools. He said State House Speaker Michael Madigan “did not have the guts” to do this when Democrats controlled the state legislature and executive branch but that, in light of the contemporaneous gubernatorial election, “the current state of play is different.”
Discussing his Hyde Park heritage, Kaegi said the neighborhood was “a great place to grow up” at a time when it was “at the center of a progressive wave in Chicago that brought a lot of really great, good change to a city that needed it.” The 1989 graduate of Kenwood Academy also said he “could not tell you how many of [his]classmates are living in Atlanta.”
He said that $500 in taxes effected by an over-assessment could drive “tens of thousands” of people out. “[If] we fix that, we think it could make a difference,” he said.
Kaegi again returned to the issue of a statewide progressive income tax, saying it would decrease the primacy of “average [income]” Illinoisans’ high property taxes to fund government services.
“If we don’t tax incomes enough and localities have to look at property taxes as a result, that’s the kind of thing that drives people out,” he said. He pointed to California, which had once faced endemic fiscal issues, where Gov. Jerry Brown’s progressive income tax reforms had led to the state’s multi-billion dollar budget surpluses.
When asked if he would personally lobby for such tax reforms in Springfield, Kaegi said they were campaigning for “the ticket right now precisely for that reason. Because we know that progressive income taxes are the key to providing relief on property taxes, especially in communities that have been most impacted by the housing crisis.”
Kaegi also pledged support for an automatic property tax exemption for seniors, saying that elderly people have to annually re-certify that they are over 65.