August 31, 2022

There are occasions when dawdling is a good thing, like with late property tax bills due to procrastination by officeholders and/or bureaucrats who invariably shun and shift the blame. Later is better than sooner. Out of sight is out of mind.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi blames a technology glitch relating to transitioning from a mainframe computer to a new integrated property tax system as the reason why the 2021 2nd installment tax bills for all 1.8 million parcels will be mailed this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas rather than around Labor Day, which is normal. And expect those bills to be pricier and recipients to be unhappier. “It’s entirely (Kaegi’s) fault,” said state Senator Rob Martwick (D-10), a Northwest Side Democrat and partner in a Loop law firm which specializes in property tax assessment appeals. “He (Kaegi) was elected (in 2018) to fix those so-called ‘technology glitches’ in the office,” Martwick said. Martwick was a supporter of former assessor Joseph Berrios in the 2018 Democratic primary, which Kaegi won.

Martwick introduced a bill during the 2021-22 session to make assessors in all 102 counties an appointive rather than elective office. Martwick said at the time that the change would help take the politics out of the position and help eliminate the perception that campaign donations could influence the assessor’s decisions.

He will introduce a similar bill again in 2023. An assessor’s sole task is to create, maintain and update a database of property values, indexed by PINs, based on recent market sale prices, periodic reassessments, or appraisals submitted by owners. Kaegi’s office spent all of 2021 sweeping market sales into the database and then issued an “assessed valuation” (AV) notice in January 2022, with a 3-month appeal window. That, and the granting of exemptions, is all the office does. The AV level is 10 percent of the property value (higher if commercial).

The assessor, explained Martwick, is supposed adjudicate all AV appeals by mid-March, put all internal and submitted documents into a digital PIN database and then dump that database on the Board of Review (BOR) by mid-March when it begins hearing appeals on the assessor’s AVs. The county has 30 suburban townships and 8 within Chicago. The BOR usually “opens” 4-6 townships per month for AV appeal hearings, adducing any new evidence to supplement the assessor’s dump, ruling and finishing its process by early August. This year Kaegi didn’t do his data dump until early June, citing “technology glitches” in getting his evidence digitized and, of course, delaying everything. “It’s a real mess,” said Martwick. “They (BOR) are now really overworked.”

After BOR closure the data is dumped on the state to set the state equalizer, which is multiplied by the AV to get the equalized assessed valuation (EAV), and then the county treasurer sets the overall local tax rate based on the money needs of local taxing districts (usually 6-7 percent of EAV), and then exemptions are deducted, the tax calculated, and the bill printed and mailed – all this consuming 2-3 months, well beyond October of 2022. Last year’s 2020/2nd bills were mailed in September.

Unpaid tax bills accrue 1.5 percent interest per month, a nominal amount for some, with taxes delinquent after 6 months, so the only incentive to pay promptly is the IL-1040 return which limits property tax deductions to those paid in the calendar year. Meanwhile, municipalities and districts have fixed overhead and must buy tax-anticipation bonds (and pay interest) to hold them over. For them, LATER is COSTLIER. No high-fives for Fritz.

And if an owner wants to appeal BOR to the PTAB (state Property Tax Appeal Board), it will take 2 years and that’s AFTER paying in full. Kaegi, Martwick said, wants to abolish PTAB.

Kaegi in a statement said “issuing tax bills is a shared responsibility of all offices,” that he’s “taken all steps” to “update an obsolete and dysfunctional system” and that the “delays were due to the need to export” his new system data “back to the old mainframe” used by BOR for 40 years. Kaegi added that BOR “should join the county in the new system.” In other words, he blames the Board of Review and the board blames him.

BOR IS NOT THE B&B: That’s an acronym for “Best and Brightest,” the title of a long-ago book written about the origins of the Vietnam War and the foreign policy crafted by people in the Kennedy Administration. That’s not an apt description of the Board of Review. Departed Cook County Board of Review commissioner Joe Berrios (1988-2010) didn’t invent pay-to-play (PTP), but raised it – as well as nepotism – to an art form at BOR. Lawyers and law firms who profitably practiced before BOR were strongly “encouraged” to donate to Berrios, and he had war chests of $300,000-plus in the run-up to his 2010 assessor bid, as well as after. Kaegi ousted him in 2018.

The county board amended the ethics ordinance to cap lawyer donations to BOR commissioners at $750 per year and ban the hiring of direct kin. But that hasn’t let the county ethics board (CCEB) grow cobwebs. Outgoing commissioner Tammy Wendt (D), who lost to Alderman George Cardenas (12th) on June 28, kept the CCBE busy for 2 years after her 2020 ouster of Republican commissioner Dan Patlak by 11,893votes. She hired a man she claimed her was her “second cousin” as a chief of staff, that the Ethics Act didn’t apply, and ultimately got sued by the CCEB to force his removal. The person in question, Todd Thielmann, was eventually fired by Wednt.

This lengthy, inauspicious dustup didn’t enhance Wendt’s reputation or fund-raising, and she (1) got her 1ST DISTRICT remapped by Springfield Democrats to make it much more Latino and (2) got dumped by 2022 Democratic slatemakers for Cardenas, a South Side alderman from heavily Mexican-American Brighton Park. Having been on cop Jason Van Dyke’s criminal defense team didn’t help. Cardenas won with 57.2 percent.

Incoming 2ND DISTRICT commissioner Samantha Steele (D), a self-described “assessment official,” already has had an inauspicious dustup. She upset 10-year incumbent (see chart) Mike Cabonargi by 13,195 votes, getting 53.5 percent. Cabonargi in his 2020 race for Clerk of Circuit Court was widely praised for efforts to digitize BOR appeal files and implement reforms and modernizations. Evidence-based AV reductions slowly replaced clout-based reductions.

Steele promised on her Web site that she would “put in place the highest ethical standards” if elected, but the ineptitude of her slapdash campaign was revealed in a July 6 post-primary Chicago Tribune story. Steele hired Rebecca Williams of Oasis Strategies as her consultant, promised her a total stipend of $19,000 plus $15,000 victory bonus, and paid her $14,000 before June 28. Problems arose, which might have gone public, so Steele gave Oasis a pre-primary $5,000 check which was returned with insufficient funds after the primary – along with a reverse order on the $14,000 previously paid because the checks were claimed to be “altered or fabricated,” according to the Tribune story. That’s called stiffing. The $34,000 fraud/breach-of-contract matter is now in litigation. Perhaps some savvy BOR lawyers can start a legal defense fund for her.

(As an aside, back in the day when I spent a decade as a campaign operative, the cardinal rule was GET PAID IN CASH before the election. If not, and your candidate loses, you get blamed AND you get stiffed.)

ANALYSIS: In the Cabonargi-Steele race the incumbent spent $276,947 and Steele $51,542, with a negative balance of $5,684 as of June 30. In the Cardenas-Wendt race the alderman spent $30,768 (with cash-on-hand of $154,515 as of June 30) and Wendt $31,195. But the result was all about geography, race and gender, not money.

The old 1st District was almost entirely northwest, west and south suburban, containing pieces of only 2 wards – the 41st and 19th. Patlak won in 2010, 2012 and 2016. The new 1st contains 19 wards, including heavily Latino 1,12,13,22,23,30,31 and 35, where Cardenas won 2-to-1, carrying Chicago by 10,900 votes, with 64.3 percent; it also contains 15 townships, of which Cardenas won 11, carrying the suburbs by 4,596 votes, or 53.4 percent. The remap doomed Wendt.

The old 2nd District contained the north Lakefront from the 42nd Ward north, all the North Side Puerto Rican wards and the eastern North Shore. The new 2nd contains 25 city wards, only 7 on the Lakefront, which Steele won by 17,789 votes, plus 9 townships, which Cabonargi won by just 4,594. The remap and a woman opponent doomed him.

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