A new audit finds it will take a lot of work — and a lot of money — for rookie Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to overhaul a property tax assessment system that rewards the rich and hurts the poor.
"The task ahead is monumental, and the financial and resource commitment for modernization is substantial," reads an audit from the International Association of Assessing Officers, released Thursday. "Nevertheless, the gains for Cook County deserve the investment in resources — both human and capital."
Kaegi, a Democrat, requested the audit to improve how his office conducts assessments. The association behind the study is a nonprofit that develops assessment guidelines around the world.
The push to overhaul Cook County's property tax system follows a 2017 Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation that revealed assessments under then-Assessor Joe Berrios were inequitable and riddled with errors. Wealthier homeowners and downtown property owners paid less than their fair share of property taxes, while low-income and minority communities paid more, the investigation found.
That was partly due to more affluent homeowners successfully appealing their assessments to get lower bills. But when that happens, the property tax burden simply shifted to poorer homeowners, the news outlets' investigation found.
Changes to the current assessment math would impact every resident of Cook County. There are nearly 2 million parcels of land in the county. The assessor decides how to divvy up the property tax burden among property owners, based on the values of their properties.
Kaegi campaigned on creating create a fairer and more transparent assessment system. In last year's Democratic primary, he ousted Berrios, a longtime politician and former head of the Cook County Democratic Party. Kaegi went on to win handily in November's general election.
To fix Cook County's property tax assessments, the outside auditors recommend that Kaegi focus on four key areas:
- Hire more people. The best way to re-appraise property is to inspect it in person, the audit says. But the assessor's office only has a quarter of the workers it needs. Based on current staffing levels, it would take 31 years to complete a general revaluation for Cook County, the audit found. That re-inspection is supposed to happen every four to six years.
- Upgrade technology. The old computer system used for assessments is "a roadblock to improvements," the audit says. The system can't produce reliable and speedy data inquiries. Kaegi already has been working to implement a new one. Tech-savvy recommendations include using software that captures street-level images of homes and office buildings to complement county employees inspecting properties on foot. The audit also suggests creating user-friendly tools so taxpayers can more easily compare their assessments to their neighbors'.
- Get better data. The quality and quantity of the assessor's current data on the values of properties is inadequate, the audit found. In some cases, the characteristics of properties — like the number of rooms inside a home or whether the basement is finished — haven't been updated in decades. How to fix this? Get fresh data sources, such as acquiring sales data that real estate agents use, partner with other county government agencies to use their images of properties, and get copies of all property sales in the county.
- Improve valuation methods. One of Kaegi's main jobs is to determine how much a property is worth. "The better the estimates ... the greater the fairness, equity, and uniformity of any reassessment," the audit says. Still, in Cook County, there's a culture of appeal, appeal, appeal. Property owners are encouraged to appeal their assessments year after year to lower them, and ultimately save money. To make valuations more accurate, and reduce appeals over time, the audit recommends that Kaegi hire more staff to verify property sales and map sales data. How far a house is from public transit could impact its value, for example.
In a statement, Kaegi's office said many of the audit recommendations are areas the assessor focused on in his first 100 days on the job. The statement also highlighted how Kaegi is addressing another audit recommendation: He's fighting for a proposed law that would allow his office to collect financial data from commercial properties that generate income, such as hotels and parking garages. The idea is to collect more information up front to create more accurate assessments.
It's not clear how much the audit recommendations would cost.
A spokesman for Kaegi said his office does not have an estimated price tag. The audit did not include one, but the report did note the assessor would need more money from the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.