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Cook County Assessor’s Office asks commissioners to lend staff — and is told, yeah, we’re pretty busy
The request comes weeks after an audit found the Cook County Assessor’s Office was working with outdated technology and was understaffed. But veteran and rookie commissioners alike were not wild about their offices being used as a summer jobs program.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019 Chicago Sun-Times by Rachel Hinton
The Cook County Assessor’s Office is asking county commissioners to loan out staff members to help field an expected rush of calls from taxpayers with questions about the second installment of property tax bills.
In a letter addressed to commissioners, Sarah Garza Resnick, the chief deputy assessor, said the office is preparing to “serve a high volume of taxpayers at our office.”
“The Cook County Assessor’s Office would like to request the assistance of your office, and would greatly appreciate the assistance of as many of your staff that you can spare to answer questions from taxpayers who call our office during this time,” Resnick wrote in the letter sent Tuesday and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The request comes weeks after an audit found Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office was working with outdated technology and was understaffed.
Veteran and rookie commissioners alike were not wild about their offices being used as a summer jobs program.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, one of the most senior County Board members, said he’s not going to participate, because “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to give staff to the assessor, because they’re an independent office.” Plus, he expects his staff to be inundated with questions about the appeals process and won’t have an extra person to lend out.
Commissioner Kevin Morrison, first elected last year, also rejected the ask.
“My staff is busy every day helping our residents here in the 15th District,” the Mount Prospect Democrat said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for our staff to be filling in to do the work of our hardworking union members.”
Another commissioner reported being “aghast” when hearing about the request.
“You would think that the assessor would’ve reached out to commissioners about his thought process in this before going to our staff with such a request,” said the commissioner, requesting anonymity. “It would’ve been nice to be brought up to speed.”
But Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, had no problem with the idea.
She said staff help out in districts around the county already to help answer county residents’ questions about their property assessments — and some of her employees were “just as knowledgeable as anyone on how to assist.”
“This is a totally legitimate request as it’s all our job to serve the public and the property tax system is one where some guidance goes a long way,” Gainer said.
Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, said he’s going to meet with his staff to “determine the feasibility of such a plan.”
The assessor’s office would have to establish a need for the help of staff. He also suggested the Board of Review, the Treasurer’s Office and the Cook County Clerk’s Office could meet up and determine how to help each other.
The assessor’s office expects bills to be mailed on or around July 1 and is asking for help from July 1 to Aug. 1 — which is when the assessor receives the most taxpayers in the office each year, according to the letter.
Property tax bills are due by Aug. 1 and have been posted on the Cook County treasurer’s web site.
Scott Smith, chief spokesman for the assessor’s office, said the office has previously asked for help from the Board of Review, and at least two people will help out with the calls, but with that office focusing on it’s own work — and the Cook County Treasurer’s Office swamped with getting the tax bills out — they turned to commissioners.
“This is a usual thing for us — tax bills go out, people have a lot of questions, and the office has more people in it than normal, and we want to make sure people get their questions answered,” Smith said.
“This is part of a lot of cross office operations,” Smith said. “We’re working closely with commissioners to talk about how to make the office run better.”
When asked if he’d approached commissioners for help when he was in charge, former Assessor Joe Berrios said no.
Berrios said he never made that request during his tenure, and the office did “99 percent of it on our own” but didn’t want to comment further on what the office of his successor is up to.
The assessor’s office will offer three training courses on how to answer questions from taxpayers, though staffers will only have to attend one. Beyond the courses being helpful with calls during the assessor’s office’s busy month, staffers can also use what they learn to help their constituents.
In an audit released late last month, the International Association of Assessing Officers found the office had only a fraction of the people it needs to handle property valuations.
Other conclusions from the report included the assessor’s office is working with aging technology, old property data and that the valuation methods are in need of improvement and are negatively affecting the accuracy, uniformity and fairness of property assessments.
Kaegi, who beat beleaguered veteran Berrios last year, requested the association conduct a comprehensive review of the assessor’s office to get to the root of inequities in property evaluations in Cook County.
Smith said the office being short staffed was no more an issue now than it was under Berrios in terms of helping answer taxpayer questions.
With the county’s budget season around the corner, Smith said they haven’t yet determined how many people they’ll ask for in their budget, but the office knows it’s short staffed and is “continuing to look at what’s needed to best serve the taxpayers of Cook County, but that’s an ongoing conversation with our partners in the president’s office and other folks involved in budgeting.”