Aug 25, 2021

In the olden days, it was common to kill the messenger for bearing bad news.

Fortunately for first-time Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi (D) 2021-22 is not the olden days, but many city and suburban residents are upset about their property assessment values and tax rates spiking in certain areas. And they want someone to blame.

This time around, Joe Berrios won't be his 2022 primary opponent, and his foe next June 28 will likely be an African-American woman whose political message to voters will be quite simple: Blame it on Assessor Kaegi.

Kaegi ran on a reform platform in 2018, accusing then-assessor Berrios of "favoritism" in property valuations and resultant assessments, with commercial tracts being under-assessed and residential tracts, particularly in minority areas, being over-assessed.

Kaegi promised fairness, which naturally resulted in accurate valuations, which naturally resulted in tax hikes, which naturally angers people. Just this week people from Pilsen were outside of his office protesting the new assessments.

One possible candidate could be Kari Steele. She is the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) since 2019, is the daughter of onetime South Side 6th Ward alderman and judge John Steele, and has a push-poll in the field which reveals her strategy - which is to tap into the democratic socialtist/liberal/minority contingent which constitutes a majority of the county' Democratic base.

Said one local Democratic consultant: "I am contacted by many ambitious White men who want to run for judge or county office. I bluntly tell them that no White man is going to defeat any woman, any minority or especially any minority woman in a countywide primary."

At present there are 3 White men among the 16 county officeholders - Kaegi, Sheriff Tom Dart, and MWRD commissioner Cam Davis. That's 18.7 percent.

The consultant is correct.

With each succeeding election cycle the Cook County Democratic electorate becomes more female, more progressive, younger, and more minority-dominated. The county's population is 5,150,233. There are 3,253,333 registered voters.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, the turnout was 1,016,178, or 32.5 percent of the registered voters (RV) and Kim Foxx got 447,974 votes for state's attorney in a 3-way race, or 44 percent. That was 13.7 percent of the total RVs, and 8.6 percent of the total population. That's no mandate, yet Foxx dictates county criminal justice policy, and was blamed by CPD superintendent David Brown for the city crime spike. They lock people up, and then they let people go was kind of what I heard.

That's how Democrats keeps power by controlling the nominating process. The county is habitually Democratic, so every Democratic nominee beats every Republican. Foxx beat Pat O'Brien (R) in 2020 1,194,299-861,108, a margin of 333,191 votes. Her vote went up from 447,974 to 1,194,299 not because she became more popular or palatable in the 7 months between the primary and election, but because she was a Democrat in an anti-Trump year. It should be noted that O'Brien got 302,839 more votes than Trump.

Likewise with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle (D). She won her 2018 primary 443,943-286,673 and her election unopposed with 1,355,457 votes. Yet when she ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 she got 89,342 votes in the February non-partisan primary and 137,765 votes in the April runoff, with a whopping 26.3 percent. That's a stunning plunge of 306,178 votes from the primary.

In other words, when voters had a choice unfiltered by gender, race or party affiliation, when it was Preckwinkle versus someone else when her record was on the line, someone else won, and won big. A political Titan she's not, though looking back on it, that whole soda tax fiasco was blown out of proportion.

Preckwinkle ousted Berrios as county chairman in 2018 after Kaegi beat him 327,769-243,425 in the primary, with 147,224 votes for a third candidate. Berrios was the slated party candidate, but in the South Side Black wards, where she and her allies are committeepersons, Kaegi ran ahead of Berrios, including by 5,238-3,938 in Preckwinkle's home 4th Ward.

Preckwinkle is seeking a fourth term in 2022, and party slating is set for early November, with petition-passing commencing in January. Will the county Democrats dump Kaegi to appease the current Democratic/woke base? As of June 30 he had $1,032,961 on-hand, compared to Steele's $26,296 and Preckwinkle's $136,523.

Steele's push-poll went out by mail and e-mail in early August under the auspices of a made-up entity called "Illinois Opinions Survey." It was actually an internal campaign poll. That's called a "push-poll," and is formatted to get the result desired. I obtained a copy.

It is prefaced with "information about potential candidates for (county) assessor" and describes Steele as "the first Black female president" of the MWRD who "manages a budget of $1 billion (and who) has increased services without raising taxes." It continues: "Steele says that Fritz Kaegi is a Wall Street banker who has let homeowners down and let their taxes go up...(and that Steele) will fix the property system to make assessments more fair for people in the neighborhoods."

Wow. Whatever "pollster" wrote that has an extraordinary talent for stringing together a bunch of platitudes, bromides and buzzwords.

Make no mistake, I think that Steele is running, and the push-poll is rigged to give her a plausible pretext to run. It sets forth her campaign strategy, which would likely be first, play the race- and gender-card. Second, create the impression that she is an adept manager who has increased services.

In actuality the MWRD's function is waste disposal, which means getting rid of billions of gallons of effluent and a couple million tons of solid waste. The MWRD does not purify water. It simply processes effluent and dumps it in the Chicago River to begin a journey to New Orleans and the Caribbean. The solid waste is dried and becomes fertilizer. The MWRD is a bureaucracy of skilled people that runs like a well-oiled machine. Or is it soiled?

Third, marginalizing Kaegi as a rich White guy by tying him to Wall Street usually works in getting some votes. To be sure, Kaegi raised investment capital for not-for-profit organizations. The goal will be to portray Kaegi as a money-grubber.

Fourth, lay the looming tax hikes based on tax rate hikes based on more government spending - augmented by market value spikes - on Kaegi.

The assessor does not make policy nor determine residential or commercial property tax levels. Its sole job is to assess a property's worth, as determined by recent sale price or construction type or location and place a valuation upon it. The county is divided into three sectors (Chicago, south suburbs, north suburbs) with one being reassessed every year. Any reassessment of the county's parcels of real estate is reflected in the next year's second installment bill.

The city was reassessed this year (2021) and the change will arise on the 2022 tax bill (2nd installment). The assessed value (AV) of residences is 10 percent of the assessor's "estimated market valuation" (EMV). Property values are spiking in some areas, up by 5-15 percent over 2020, but that's because the market is strong, according to Kaegi.

Notices were recently mailed to Chicago owners increasing 2021 assessed values by an estimated 5-10 percent. For example, a city parcel with a 2019 AV of $39,000 (and EMV of $390,000) is now worth about $450,000. But the boost won't hit until late 2022, after the June 28 primary.

The treasurer, who compiles all the spending demands of local taxing bodies, and then sets a tax rate high enough to get that money, formulates the actual tax bill.

The average tax rate for Chicagoans, according to an August report by the treasurer, is 7.14 percent. What caught attention in the media is that tax rates for the south suburbs (everything south of North Avenue) have exploded after their 2020 reassessment - with most over 20 percent and Park Forest at 34.89 percent. Black-majority cities like Markham, Harvey and Riverdale are in the mid-20s. This means tax bills doubling and tripling. Same thing for Maywood and Bellwood.

And this has potentially dire political consequences for Kaegi, as the south suburbs are two-thirds Black and filled with African-American homeowners. Residential owners are paying $8.9 billion more over 2020. Business property owners are also taking a whack, paying $7 billion more.

Kaegi's 2018 theme was that he would eradicate Berrios's pay-to-play practices, which a pre-primary report claimed was harmful to lower-income and minority owners. The assessor's office can accept and approve assessment value appeals, and those come mostly from businesses and more affluent homeowners who know how to game the system.

It would be the height of irony if Kaegi, who has undone Big Joe Berrios's legacy and tried to render fair EMVs, would get beat by someone next year from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Cook

But hey, stranger things happen in politics. Sometimes it's a snow-storm. And sometimes voters lose it over taxing sugary soda. That's how the city gets its mayors sometimes.