Mr. Kaegi went to Springfield and came back without a bill he contends is needed to bring true reform to Cook County’s property tax system.
Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi said Thursday afternoon that leaders in the Illinois House informed him that SB 1379, his data modernization bill, would not get a vote before the midnight Friday deadline.
Kaegi noted in a statement that the measure had 39 co-sponsors in the House, and earned 36 yes votes in the Senate.
“Hours of meetings with those who oppose the bill: Limitless; Reasons why Illinois and Cook County don’t deserve a fair, equitable and transparent assessment system: 0,” Kaegi said.
“SB 1379 remains the best first legislative step toward reform of the property tax system. We’ll be back next session to get it passed.”
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association issued a joint response, calling Kaegi’s statement “disappointing” and “disrespectful.”
“We are disappointed by the assessor’s statement and the disrespect it shows to the various stakeholders who engaged in meaningful discussion and the legislators who expressed their concerns with the unknown impacts,” they said. “Haste makes waste and Cook County property owners, residential and commercial alike, have certainly experienced enough waste.”
The bill would have given Kaegi’s office the ability to collect operating income and expense data from commercial and industrial properties to help assess different kinds of commercial buildings.
Kaegi described the measure as the “single most important step we can take to reform our property tax system,” and said it would give his office more current data than relying on past appeals or information from databases.
But sources in the business and real estate committee privately said Kaegi underestimated the legislative process, and did himself no favors when staff announced that negotiations had “resolved concerns about the bill’s language,” when a deal had not yet been struck.
Skyrocketing commercial assessments in the North Suburbs and a recent audit about poor staffing and technology at the office were two reasons business interests urged a slowdown and further negotiation through the summer.
A group, including Illinois Realtors, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Manufacturers Association, wrote to House leadership this week to double down on their opposition.
“With less than a month of serious consideration, SB 1379 contemplates a tremendous, rapid and uncertain shift in a $14.5 billion segment (total Cook County property taxes) of the Illinois economy,” they wrote. “The information sought, and much more, is available through the appeals process. If the Assessor’s office lacks the staff and technology to process information currently available to them, why require property owners to submit yet additional data?”
Complaints about the current assessment have mostly come from the owners of smaller commercial properties, which are often left out of large databases, Kaegi said on the latest episode of The Daily Line’s Aldercast, recorded May 28.
“It’s because the data is not as good,” Kaegi said. “We have to solve it right now through the appeals process. We do do that, but that is a flawed way of doing it, because first of all, not everyone appeals. Second of all, it takes lots of time. Third of all, it’s unpredictable to the property owner, and fourth, it’s costly. Why don’t we gather data at the outset of the process so they can report those higher expenses to us initially, and save them that trouble?”
South Suburban property owners will be especially hurt by the bill’s failure, which means inaccurate and unpredictable assessments will continue because of their property’s small size, high vacancy rates.
“In the South Suburbs we have high tax rates, high vacancies, lease rates that can be a lot lower than past leases were signed for,” Kaegi said. “When they get more complex, when you have lots of vacancy, when you have higher tax rates, when you have lease rates that can change a lot from year to year… the more inaccurate our assessments can be.”
Even if Kaegi’s bill passes during the fall veto session, it is unlikely to be in time to reassess properties in the South Suburbs or in the city, the office’s biggest undertaking.
Other takeaways from his interview:
The bill battle didn’t distract from his office’s mandate — “I don’t think it’s taken much because they are on parallel tracks. For example, we wanted to create forms for the bill. We’re using those same forms for people who are submitting appeals. We are creating information security for the bill, that’s also necessary for the work that we’re gathering anyway. We have a chief data officer whose job is to come up with new residential valuations and find problems with them. That helps us to make the case for the bill but also to help us do better modeling,” Kaegi said. Kaegi is also hiring more staff, trying to improve customer service, and making the office more transparent by putting its methods up online and holding listening tour sessions. You can view slides from those sessions, with explainers about the property tax system and Kaegi’s reforms.
Few understand what the Assessor does, maybe by design — “You can own billions of dollars of real estate in Cook County or have been an elected official doing tax policy in Cook County, hardly anyone really understands our property tax system,” Kaegi said. “That’s the thing that I’ve learned, and it’s shocking, because so much is on the line. This is the success of where people live, this is our neighborhoods, these are really big economic investments, this is how we finance our government, and yet when we talk to people, people don’t realize when your assessment changes that doesn’t necessarily entail a change in the tax that you pay. People don’t realize that we don’t set taxes, that that’s the taxing bodies. What we’re doing is just dividing up a pie that’s been baked by others. It’s a pie that no one wants to eat, of course, but it’s our job to divide it equally.”
On the wave of appeals likely heading to the Board of Review — The Board of Review, whose commissioners has been complaining of low staffing numbers for several years amidst mounting appeals, could be in for years of work, depending on how the final bills shake out. “Our offices have really never cooperated like that together before,” Kaegi said. “Their duty is to be independent of us, to come up with an independent review of assessments that we’ve come up with. We respect that independence, what we want to do is do a better job of defending our own work and providing some transparency to them on how we’ve come up with our numbers… When we haven’t been giving them evidence before, it’s kind of like unilateral surrender.”