Despite History, Assessor’s Job Should Focus On Fairness
With the primary election only a few days away, now is the perfect time to assess the candidates running for the office of Cook County Assessor.
The assessor’s job is hugely important--overseeing the nation’s largest property tax system with 1.9 million Cook County real estate parcels that must be valued.
Over the decades, this writer has covered real estate assessment trends while the assessor’s office was headed by a diverse collection of mostly Irish-American Democratic-machine creatures—including P.J (Parky) Cullerton, Thomas M. Tully, Thomas C. Hynes and James Houlihan.
Funny thing, these political leaders always attended the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and seemed to be connected to the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley’s friendly Irish clan.
The incumbent, Assessor Fritz Kaegi, was elected to the job in 2019 after defeating longtime Democratic machine stalwart Joseph Berrios in the election.
Critics say Berrios’ loose-cannon assessment style often sidestepped fairness and focused on well-heeled insiders along with politically connected tax-appeal lawyers. Favorable valuations allegedly were handed out to wealthy downtown property owners who kept donations flowing into Barrios’ campaign coffers.
While nepotism and patronage ran rampant, and ethics rules were ignored by Berrios, Kaegi ran on a pledge to overhaul Berrios’ dysfunctional office, and voters believed him. On the whole, Kaegi has delivered.
Kaegi inherited not only a deeply flawed, ethically bankrupt office, but also a dusty, decades-old data system that relied on reams of paper. When Kaegi first took office, his staff allegedly found 600 tons of paper tax appeals in storage.
Immediately, Kaegi launched a plan to modernize the office’s data system, replaced most of Berrios’ top staffers and halted the office’s practice of accepting campaign contributions from tax appeal lawyers.
Under Kaegi, property tax bills for most Chicagoans actually declined last year, halting a 20-year trend of tax-bill hikes by a median of 4%. Homeowner assessments have taken a smaller share of the tax levy, while business properties were handed a larger share.
No wonder Kaegi, who is running for reelection on June 28, has been targeted and criticized by big commercial property owners and apartment developers. Kaegi’s sin: refocusing assessment efforts on the fat cats—and away from homeowners—who have been carrying the majority of the tax burden for decades.
Last year, the International Association of Assessing Officers presented Kaegi’s office with its “Outstanding Public Information and Outreach Award.” And, the National Association of Counties gave his office an award for its digital innovation efforts.
Assessor Kaegi is a highly qualified expert in property assessments, holding both the Chartered Financial Analyst and Certified Illinois Assessment Officer designations. Before serving as assessor, Kaegi had a 13-year career as a financial-asset manager at Columbia Wanger Asset Management. Born and raised in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Kaegi holds an MBA from Stanford University.
Kaegi’s opponent is Kari Steele, president of the Board of Commissioners at the Metropolitan Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. She holds a pre-med degree in Chemistry from Xavier University of Louisiana.
Politically connected Steele is the commercial real estate interests’ candidate. She has received a $1-million contribution from the “Fight Back Fund,” affiliated with Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union that benefits from building and development. Steele is also supported by the Lincoln Park Builders, and several other prominent real estate groups.
As assessor, Steele said she would create a property tax system that is more equitable, assures stability for businesses, provides relief for homeowners, and funds public services.
The ancient Cook County Assessor’s office has existed in its present form since 1932. Now, let’s look back at the track records of some of the most interesting folks who once occupied the chair of Cook County Assessor:
P.J. “Parky” Cullerton, 1958-1974. A descendant of a long line of politically connected Cullertons, Parky served as a Democratic Committeeman and Alderman of Chicago’s 38th Ward before Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed him to the assessor’s job in 1958, a post he held until 1974. If you ran into Parky Cullerton in an elevator at the County Building while he was returning from a political luncheon or smoke-filled room, he would greet you with his famous salutation: “Hi, Keed!”
Thomas M. Tully, 1974-1978. A former assistant state’s attorney, Tully’s website describes him as “one of Chicago’s most prominent and well-respected” lawyers. Handsome Tully had a nice smile and dressed like a Wall Street trader. Tully ascended to the job of assessor after serving as chief deputy assessor from 1971 to 1973, and earlier as the assessor’s legal advisor from 1963 to 1965. According to a 2018 Chicago Tribune investigation, Tully’s firm, Thomas M. Tully & Associates—which specializes in property tax appeals—contributed $5,000 to assessor Berrios in the fourth quarter of 2016. Tully’s law firm filed appeals for clients on commercial and industrial properties with a value of about $2.9 billion since Barrios took office—winning assessment reductions of $756 million.
Thomas C. Hynes, 1978-1997. A physics teacher from the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side who dressed like a Harvard professor, Hynes had a long political career. Hynes served as 19th Ward Democratic Committeeman, and was president of the Illinois Senate. Intelligent and erudite Hynes was elected assessor in 1978, and reelected five times. In 1979, Hynes gave this reporter an award for “explaining the mysteries and complexities” of the Cook County assessment system for a series of Chicago Sun-Times articles I wrote as real estate editor. This writer liked Hynes for his intellect. His deputy assessor, Dick Vanecko, was a knowledgeable man who happened to be married to one of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s daughters. In 1987, Hynes ran against incumbent Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor. Later, Hynes withdrew to avoid splitting the White vote with two other candidates—Democrat Edward Vrdolyak and Republican Don Haider.
James Houlihan, 1997-2010. Houlihan was a protégé of Hynes, serving as a deputy assessor. He was appointed assessor after Hynes resigned from serving 18 years in the post. In 1972, Houlihan was elected as Illinois state representative and reelected in 1974. When Houlihan took office, residential properties were undervalued. Rather than remedying this, which would have led to higher taxes for many, he kept rates artificially low, which may explain why he was assessor for 14 years. Critics said Houlihan operated outside of professional appraisal standards. He skewed residential values so low that it severely uncalibrated the county’s property tax system. Ironically, Houlihan was a rival of Barrios, who then was serving as a Cook County Board of Review member, and later ascending to the assessor’s post.