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Unfair assessments lawsuit dismissed after assessor makes changes — full reform called a ‘years-long process’

Thursday, November 07, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rachel Hinton

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi helped persuade a judge to toss out a 2017 lawsuit alleging Kaegi’s predecessor “systematically and illegally” shifted residential property tax burdens to minority and low-income homeowners.

The Cook County judge accepted the argument that reforms and transparency measures Kaegi has brought to the office over the past year addressed issues raised in the suit.

But a Kaegi spokesman says that doesn’t mean all the problems are solved.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the South Suburban Housing Center agreed to dismiss the lawsuit they’d filed against former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and the county.

The decision to dismiss the suit, which was finalized Wednesday, was brought forward by the neighborhood and housing groups and Kaegi — who became the new defendant after he was sworn into office last December.

They pointed to changes such as releasing the office’s assessment modeling to the public, countywide outreach meetings and a shift in the tax burden from southern areas of the city to north and central areas as a reason to dismiss the suit. Scott Smith, a Kaegi spokesman, said the dismissal shows the office has taken big steps toward reforming the office.

“Fully reforming the office is a years-long process,” Smith said in a statement. “But the dismissal of the lawsuit shows that we have taken significant steps toward that goal in our first year. Within the next year, we plan on creating digital filing for exemptions and appeals, hiring additional staff in our valuations area, and improving the quality of our assessment data, all of which will deliver on a promise of fairer assessments for all of Cook County.”

The lawsuit was filed after months of allegations against Berrios for undervaluing homes in majority-white and majority high-income neighborhoods. Homes in minority and low-income neighborhoods were allegedly overvalued to make up for the disparity. A joint series by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois in 2017 investigated the office’s methodology and found it to be “riddled with errors.” Berrios rebutted the claims and said taxpayers could appeal their assessments.

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. File Photo.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In the suit that was dismissed this week, the groups said under Berrios, “Cook County’s residential property tax scheme is neither accurate nor uniform — and therefore violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clauses of the Illinois and United States Constitutions, the Uniformity Clause of the Illinois Constitution, and the federal Fair Housing Act.”

The groups requested the court declare the assessment system unlawful and to order Berrios’ office to adopt and implement a fair, accurate and nondiscriminatory system. It also sought the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the process.

The organizations were not immediately available for comment about the dismissal.

As part of the lawsuit dismissal, Kaegi and members of his administration agreed to meet twice a year throughout his administration with representatives of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Logan Square Neighborhood Council, and South Suburban Housing Center.

“Over the past year, we’ve shown our dedication to keeping our promises of fairness and public engagement,” Kaegi said in a statement. “We know it’s the only way to ensure we fully reform our assessment system.”

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