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COMMENTARY: Fritz Kaegi: Benefits of property tax assessment reform are showing in Cook County

Friday, November 15, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi

As I approach the end of my first year in office, I want to make clear why I’ve pursued an agenda of transparency, fairness and predictability at the Cook County assessor’s office: Cook County should be seen as a market that is open for business and as a place where homeowners can thrive.

We have one simple mandate: to fairly and uniformly estimate the fair market value of each property, as stated in the Illinois Property Tax Code.

 

It would violate the law — and the will of the public — to tell our hard-working analysts to give one group favorable treatment and shift a greater share of property taxes onto all others.

The voters of Cook County were fed up with past practices that would lead to deviations from the good stewardship, fairness and accuracy required by law.

Our state’s process of dividing municipal levies through assessed property values means that Cook County assessments are interconnected. Assessed value for one property is only meaningful in the context of the total assessed value in a taxing district; it also means that the rate one homeowner pays on the assessed value of her home depends on how all others are assessed, including commercial property owners.

This year, our office only reassessed the northern suburbs. (We reassess the south suburbs next year and Chicago in 2021). Some commercial assessments there have gone up significantly. But many property owners don’t know that increases in assessments almost never entail the same increase in taxes. When assessed values increase, tax rates typically drop as there is more taxable value to equitably distribute the levies.

Because increases in commercial assessments could lead to residential property owners’ taxes going down, some suggest we are attempting to shift the tax burden to commercial property owners. But previous commercial assessments from this office were out of sync with industry standards and the market. We have corrected these practices.

Previously, our office never made its data public. Now, we publish reports on our website that document our data sources and our methodology to help property owners know they are being treated fairly. Homeowners, investors and owners are better able than ever before to predict how properties will be assessed. Independent third-party data, reported in the local press, supports our work. No one has said our overall approach is incorrect or faulty.

Our methods represent the best practices used elsewhere in the United States — in places that have thriving real estate markets. It makes no sense to say that an opaque, unaccountable and idiosyncratic assessment system generates more certainty than a transparent, predictable one.

Other approaches, such as extending the three-year reassessment period or freezing in place certain property classification rates, would further erode the goals of fairness, accuracy and predictability in our system.

I understand some market participants — some of whom were used to the “idiosyncrasies” of Cook County’s property tax system — are in an adjustment period. Yet some investors are already benefiting from this new transparency and predictability by stepping up activity in the second half of the year. Office vacancy is at its lowest point since 2016 and leasing activity is at new peaks. Investors from around the world have announced hundreds of millions of dollars in deals in Chicago within the last few months. Any one of these would qualify as one of the top five largest commercial building sales in the Chicago area.

While the commercial market is thriving, my office continues to reform our approach to residential assessment, which reporting showed to be unfair to many homeowners. We’ve publicly posted all our models and underlying data. Our initial assessments for single-family homes met the International Association of Assessing Officers’ standards for fairness in 10 of the 13 reassessed townships, which is a standard our office has not achieved in several years. But we know we have more work to do to ensure Cook County remains a place for everyone to continue to call home.

To improve upon this, we have pushed in Springfield for SB 1379, the Data Modernization Bill, which will give our office and the public anonymized, accurate and up-to-date data needed for predictable assessments. The bill passed the Senate this year with a bipartisan supermajority, and we look forward to working with our legislative partners in the House on its passage in next year’s spring session.

We believe we are on the right course. My door remains open to anyone who wants to talk about creating further predictability in Cook County, a desire we all share.

Fritz Kaegi is the Cook County assessor.

 


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