New assessment finds assessor’s office understaffed and low-tech

The assessor’s office has only a fraction of the people it needs to handle property valuations — with potential fixes ranging from hiring scores of new workers to outsourcing the job for as much as $88 million.

Fritz Kaegi, left, then Democratic candidate for Cook County assessor in 2018; Then Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, right, in 2018.

Sun-Times File Photos. | Rich Hein and Max Herman

The embattled Cook County Assessor’s Office has already been criticized for property assessments deemed “more variable and more regressive” than industry standards, and now a new report says the office also falls short keeping up with technology and maintaining adequate staffing.

The assessor’s office has only a fraction of the people it needs to handle property valuations — with potential fixes ranging from hiring scores of new workers to outsourcing the job for as much as $88 million.

Those were some of the key findings from an audit done by the International Association of Assessing Officers and released to the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.

The association concluded the assessor’s office is understaffed and 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.

“The assessor’s office may close the gap that exists in funding by adapting technology,” Chris Barlow, a member of the association, told commissioners. “Let me state in general, you can have the best people in the world, you can have the best, most modern technology in the world, but poor data quality will inhibit the ability of the office to generate accurate values.”

Assessor Fritz Kaegi, who replaced veteran Joe Berrios in December, 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.

Last February, a review conducted by the Civic Consulting Alliance found the office’s assessment practices to be “more variable and more regressive” than industry standards. That came after repeated defenses of the assessment process from Berrios, who argued that the approach was sound. He was booted from office the next month.

The latest report found the assessor’s office currently has 11 people working on residential property valuations and nine for commercial properties. The association recommends a minimum of 56 staffers for homes and nine for commercial properties to meet their recommended standards.

Because of the assessment cycle, and the statutory requirements of the county, the association also recommends hiring, training, equipping and housing an additional 90 data collectors for the residential department. As expensive as those labor costs would be, outsourcing the work could be just as costly. One potential reappraisal approach that called for contracting with a company gave a general estimate of $88 million.

Asked whether or not they’ll ask for the extra staffing and when, Scott Smith, a spokesman for the assessor’s office, said that they’re putting together their budget and it’s designed to “to support the most timely, accurate, and fair assessments.”

“Our budget is designed to support the most timely, accurate, and fair assessments. IAAO standards say parcels should be field inspected every four to six years,” Smith said. “We are unable to meet that standard at current staffing levels in our valuations department. Our goal is to work with the County to come up with a budget that lets us meet that standard as soon as possible.”

The county has taken some steps already recommended by the assessing officers.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county is looking at a $49 million budget gap but will try to meet the needs of all bureaus, departments and separately elected officials.

“It’s a little hard to predict what we’re going to need in terms of resources, and my general experience has been that every bureau and every elected official asks for more money than we have,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s always a matter of negotiation and trying to set a priority.”

Then Cook County Board President-elect Toni Preckwinkle congratulates newly-elected County Assesor Joe Berrios the morning after their victories in 2010.
Then Cook County Board President-elect Toni Preckwinkle congratulates newly-elected County Assesor Joe Berrios the morning after their victories in 2010.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Kaegi has pledged to bring the office in line with others around the country.

That’s included pushing for the passage of state Senate Bill 1379, the data modernization bill, which would give his office the ability to collect operating income and expense data for income-generating, commercial properties which would bring the county in line with assessor practices in at least 17 other states as well as updates to the technology the office uses.

After the board meeting, Preckwinkle — who backed Berrios over Kaegi — said she’s grateful to Kaegi for “seeking expert advice” and looks forward to continuing to work with him on pursuing reforms for his office. She noted a focus on updating information technology in the county’s various offices — something that will continue.

“We’re doing that in the property and taxation arena, not just with the assessor but with the treasurer and the board of review and the recorder’s office and the clerk’s office, I guess all of them involved in property and taxation,” Preckwinkle said. “And we have a contract with Tyler Technologies to do some of that work, and we’re proceeding with all of our stakeholders in property and taxation to try to address some of the information technology challenges.”