Finger-Pointing Over Late Cook County Property Tax Bills

A reprieve from having to pay a hefty tax bill sounds like a gift, but a monthslong delay in Cook County property tax bills could instead cause headaches for taxpayers, governments and elected officials alike.

During the pandemic, homeowners were given grace periods on paying their bills – a calculated offer that was helpful to those struggling to keep up with their mortgage.

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The delay residents and businesses will face for the upcoming round of property tax bills is different. It’s not planned, it’s not strategic, and it could cost – not save – money.

This time, it’s due to falling out between two independent Cook County offices and elected officials, who collectively are responsible for determining the value of properties.

Normally, bills for the second half of 2021 would be sent to property owners in June and July, and be due Aug.1.

Instead, it’s questionable the bills won’t be ready to go out before the end of the calendar year.

“If it’s late beyond this year, you would not be able to write it off for your income tax. And that’s a big concern,” said Cook County commissioner John Daley. 

That would also cause a problem for government bodies like schools, park districts and libraries that depend on tax dollars rolling in to operate.

If taxpayers are late getting and paying their tax bills, governments will be late getting their money and could have trouble paying their own bills.

“They would, as a taxing district, they would have to go out and possibly borrow money, if they don’t have enough in reserve to cover their expenses,” Daley said. “It would a domino effect because those taxing districts – whether it be education, which is the largest part of a tax bill – would have to go out and borrow money.”

Borrowed money would have to be paid back, with interest, ultimately causing taxpayers to have to front more of their money toward future property tax bills.

Daley this week chaired a three-hour long county finance committee hearing trying to get to the bottom of what's behind the delay.

He said he heard a lot of finger-pointing.

Behind the blame game between the Cook County Assessor’s Office and the Cook County Board of Review  are material with real-life consequences, and against the backdrop of intense primary elections battles.

Both sides agree, there’s a delay.

Assessor Fritz Kaegi said it’s because months had to be spent creating a way to allow the assessor’s office’s new computer system to communicate and send necessary data, to the Board of Review , which needs it to do its job of deciding appeals brought by property owners of Kaegi’s valuations.

Kaegi was unavailable for an interview Thursday, but spokesman Scott Smith said while Kaegi’s predecessor delayed moving forward with a modern system, Kaegi followed through on election promises to make updates. Previously, property owners had to file appeals on paper.

“If the Assessor’s Office … did not launch a new online appeals system in 2020, the CCAO could not have transitioned to a remote environment which would have potentially exposed the public and our staff to a deadly virus when vaccines were not available,” Kaegi wrote in an April 24 letter to Cook County Commissioners.

The assessor’s office also moved off what the letter describes as a “40-year-old mainframe” to “a modern, integrated system used by so many of our peers around the nation.”

Smith said in doing so, the assessor’s office made good use of taxpayer money by moving forward with $30 million in technology upgrades to the property tax computer system that Cook County had authorized money for back in 2015. 

“This is largely about fiscal responsibility, but also making sure that we are not taking on technical risk that puts people’s data, and quite frankly the value of their homes, at risk," Smith said.

There were some delays with the vendor, Smith said.

He also said the assessors’ office repeatedly tried to cooperate with the reviews panel to little avail. According to a timeline provided by Kaegi’s office, the Board of Review  “subject matter” missed a meeting last June and then that individual was on vacation for three weeks; later that summer another meeting was “brief and contentious.”

The Board of Review  made system upgrades years ago, but still operates off the old “mainframe.”

Smith describes sending data from the assessor’s office to the Board of Review  was like putting a Playstation game into an Atari, hence a technical “bridge” had to be built.

The building of that bridge took months, causing a four- to five-month delay in the Board of Review  receiving the assessment and appeals information it needs to do its part in the process.

Board of Review  chair Larry Rogers, Jr. said pinning problems on technology is a “smoke and mirrors” excuse.

He said there should have been no need to create a workaround or bridge between the computer systems.

“It’s not a technology problem. It’s not a COVID problem. It’s a leadership problem. And he (Kaegi) failed as the assessor to implement the system in a fashion where it would not disrupt the schedule. And as a result, we’re going to have late tax bills,” Rogers said.

For the purposes of assessments, Cook County properties are broken into thirds, such that buildings and homes are re-evaluated once every three years.

All city of Chicago properties, which Rogers said make up for 65% of Cook County properties, were due for their assessment in 2021.

Such a massive technical overhaul should not have been done then, Rogers said. Kaegi should have been running a backup or “parallel” system to make sure there weren’t bugs or data transfer problems, he added, and if there would be an opportunity to work out those errors without cause a disruption.

“What impacted the current delay by assessor Kaegi is his decision to implement new technology in the worst possible time, when the city of Chicago had to be reassessed,” Rogers said. “It’s standard practice when you’re implementing the technology to run a parallel system.”

Rogers said normally the review board has all of the information it needs by November or early April. This time, he said the assessor’s office “dumped” the bulk of its data with the review board within the past 30 days, with the last files coming in as late as April 23 (Smith said the last information came in earlier than that.). Rogers said he expects it to be rife with errors.

In his letter ahead of this weeks’ hearing, Kaegi wrote that “it is my belief that we can all complete our responsibilities to ensure payment of Tax Year 2021 property tax bills by December 2022, a delay of approximately four months from the typical due date. Delivery by this date will ensure minimal disruption to taking (sic) districts and taxpayers can include that year’s property tax assessments on their income tax filings in 2022.”

However, Rogers told WTTW News he could not commit to that timeline.

“We’re expecting a lot of errors because he did this data dump. And I don’t know until I open the townships in groupings, I don’t even know how many people will be appealing,” he said. “Additionally, when you talk about the city tri, you’re talking about some of the most significant and sophisticated properties in all of Cook County. You have the central business district. You have the high rises – they dealt with significant vacancies. You have the hotels that were closed for significant periods of time … So I can’t tell you (when the board’s work will be done) because I don’t know the universe that will be filing (appeals).”

He said the three-member review panel will work expeditiously but that the board has to “make sure taxpayers get a fair chance to file appeals so they pay no more than their fair share.”

Daley said the county has offered to try to help speed things along, by helping to fund temporarily hiring back employees who recently retired from the Board of Review .

“We’re gonna do everything within our power to get to as quickly as possible without compromising the integrity of the evaluations or a taxpayer’s ability to file an appeal and be heard,” Rogers said.

Rogers has no primary competition.

But the two other members of the Review Board do.

First District Commissioner Tammy Wendt is being challenged by 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas in the June 28 primary, while 2nd District Commissioner Michael Cabonargi has competition from Samantha Steele.  

Kaegi has said he will not make endorsements for Board of Review  candidates.

He has his own primary opponent, President of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Kari Steele.

Rogers said he is not endorsing anyone for assessor, but “I am absolutely not endorsing Assessor Kaegi.”

Rogers said that in the 18 years he has been at the Board of Review “Assessor Kaegi is by far the worst in terms of the decisions that he has made, the implementation that he has carried out, his failure to communicate effectively for the benefit of taxpayers, and quite frankly just the errors in his assessments. They have been significant, they have been drastic…and they have devastating effects on the business community. They have devastating effects on small businesses. And they have devastating effects on everyday taxpayers,” Rogers said.

Cook County has had three assessors in the span that Rogers has been on the Board of Review: James Houlihan served from ’97 to 2010 and was followed by Joe Berrios, a key player in the Democratic county political machine until he was defeated in 2018 under a cloud of ethical questions by Kaegi.

A deep dive by the Chicago Tribune found severe flaws in how Berrios assessed properties.

Kaegi's office stands by its work. Smith said the International Association of Assessing Officers found Kaegi's assessments as more accurate than in the past. According to a Chicago Sun Times report, the association in a 2019 audit found the office was working with outdated technology.

“We have implemented the first phase of an investment that the county approved in 2015, and we recently won an award for our customer service. Those are things that Assessor Kaegi has done,” Smith said.

Daley says he’s over the finger-pointing. He said the board wants the work done.

“The treasurer was very clear and the clerk was very clear. They are ready to go print the bills today if they have ‘em. But they don’t. So basically it’s the assessor and the Board of Review must come together and solve this,” Daley said. “Enough pointing fingers. Whatever was done was done. It’s over. Get the bills out.”

Daley said he fears another domino effect: That this delay will slow down the next round of property tax assessments, appeals reviews and bills.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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