The race for the unglamorous position of Cook County assessor has been thrown in the spotlight as a financial manager who labels himself “a progressive” is challenging a two-term incumbent who is part of the county’s Democratic Machine.
Challenger Fritz Kaegi said he shares residents’ frustrations with a property assessment system that too often puts the tax burden on lower-income residents.
“Most Downtown corporate properties are underassessed,” Kaegi said. “Millions of properties have been overassessed. You can tell by how much by going into neighborhoods on the West Side (of Chicago). It is $500 to $1,000 per year that the typical household in one of those communities overpays. People say that they don’t know why the system is the way it is.”
Incumbent Joe Berrios failed to respond to Cook County Chronicle requests to discuss his candidacy.
His campaign website contends that Berrios takes great pride in serving Cook County.
“As assessor, he has implemented substantial improvements which have saved Cook County residents millions of dollars annually and made the office responsive to the needs of property owners,” the website states.
Berrios contends that his office has done on-time assessments, saving communities millions of dollars in interest because they don’t have to borrow money to meet budgets.
He said, on his website, that his office has recovered more than $20 million in would-be lost revenue from erroneous exemptions. The savings continue, he contends, because those erroneous exemptions are eliminated from future tax years.
His campaign site notes that Berrios has downsized the office, with the staff being 25 percent smaller than when he took office.
Kaegi said that he could start bringing changes to the assessment system during his first year in office, with assessments starting to be righted in the following year.
“A model program is more accurate. It is already in the Assessor’s Office and staff has been trained on the model,” Kaegi said. “It can function on the computer system as it exists. It does not need a major capital investment. It makes more accurate information on foreclosures and underwater mortgages.”
“This will be a great story of turning around pay-to-play and corruption,” he added.
Kaegi said he is not concerned about going up against the Cook County Democratic Machine.
“The Machine is most effective when there is not a known candidate against the Machine,” Kaegi said. “Polls show I have 80 percent name recognition.”
The challenger said he does not believe the Machine will be a strong factor in the assessor’s race and any clout it may have will be negated by the congressional support he has gotten from U.S. Reps. Danny Davis (D-7th), Mike Quigley (D-5th) and others.
“The machine has been a lot weaker than it has been given credit for,” Kaegi said. “A machine candidate in Berrios’ own ward lost in 2015. We see more and more voters making their own decisions.”
Berrios has the support of party powers Secretary of State Jesse White, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
He also has the support of three Cook County commissioners and 15 Chicago aldermen.
Berrios lists Cook County Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr. as endorsing him, but Arroyo was part of the Northwest Side Political Action Committee that endorsed Kaegi this weekend.
“During my first term as commissioner, I’ve seen more and more people come visit my office, looking for relief from their soaring property tax bills,” Arroyo said. “Assessor Berrios says that he has done a good job by sending out tax bills on time. But what good does it do to send the bills out early, if they are so unfair?”
Kaegi balked at claims that he is self-funding his campaign.
“I have over 1,000 donors. I have raised $500,000 in support,” Kaegi said. “To say I am self-funding is not accurate.”
However, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform shows that Kaegi has contributed $1.5 million to his campaign thus far, including a $250,000 donation on March 5. The campaign had $1.2 million on hand as of March 10.
Kaegi’s donations to his own campaign are seven times that of the next highest donor, Leo Smith.
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform shows that the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor, of which Berrios is chairman, has $1.4 million at its discretion, including $410,000 from the 31st Ward Democratic Organization and $40,000 from the Cook County Democratic Party, both of which Berrios also chairs.
The 31st Ward fund and the County Democratic fund have $482,000 and $1.1 million on hand, respectively.
Records show that Berrios contributed $165,000 to the 31st Ward fund as the 31st Ward committeeman and another $65,000 as committeeman.
Berrios is also the fourth highest contributor to the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor, having donated $100,000 to the fund.
— ‘Progressive’ takes on ‘the Machine’ in Cook Co. assessor’s race —-