“Nobody is trying to shock the system. Nobody is looking to scare away investment from Chicago,” the mayor said, adding that she knows how important predictability is to investors. But “Predictability can not be about enshrining the status-quo.”

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi talks to the Sun-Times editorial board last year.
Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi talks to the Sun-Times editorial board last year.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined forces with Fritz Kaegi on Wednesday and flatly denied that the assessor’s efforts to fix Cook County’s “broken” property tax assessment system would scare off the development needed to reverse Chicago’s population losses.

“Nobody is trying to shock the system. Nobody is looking to scare away investment from Chicago. We all want to see our residential, commercial and industrial real estate markets thrive. Our success as a city is inextricably tied to the growth and growth needs development to be real. That’s unimpeachable,” Lightfoot said.

Addressing, movers and shakers at the Cook County Assessor’s Market Analyst Day in the South Loop, Lightfoot said she recognizes that “change isn’t easy.” But she argued that “change has to come” because property owners and investors “deserve to know if they’re being treated fairly and uniformly.”

“There needs to be a focus on predictability and stability….I know that predictability is important. But predictability cannot be about enshrining the status-quo,” she said.

Kaegi campaigned on reforming the way the offices does business, in part because of studies that found that wealth was being transferred from low-income homeowners to their higher income counterparts.

Improvements on that front have included automating the senior homestead exemption so elderly homeowners don’t have to trek down to the assessor’s office in the cold and the snow to renew their tax breaks.

But some of Kaegi’s other ideas to reform the office have struck out.

A Senate bill Kaegi backed in Springfield, which focused on data modernization and would provide his office more detail for evaluating commercial properties, stalled in the Illinois House earlier this year after passing the Senate.

That bill has drawn the ire of some in the commercial property tax industry who have called on Kaegi to “pause” the triennial assessment process and make changes to property classification rates, according to an open letter Kaegi wrote that was published last month

Kaegi spokesman Scott Smith said the office is expecting the bill to be called for a vote in the spring session.

“What we’ve done over the last six months or so has been to explain why this bill benefits commercial property owners because it means we have better data on the types of properties within Cook County, particularly within the neighborhoods,” Smith said. “What that means is we’re more likely to get our assessments right the first time instead of through the appeals process.”

Lightfoot said both she and Kaegi were “given a mandate to end business as usual” by voters “fed up” with corruption that has “run rampant” and with a system at all levels “rigged to favor a clouted few.”

That’s why she signed an executive order just hours after taking office ending aldermanic prerogative over licensing and permitting and has promised to do the same for the unbridled control that local alderman had over zoning in their wards.

That’s why she stands firmly behind Kaegi’s efforts to reform a flawed and unfair property tax assessment system that, she claimed, “benefited the few to the detriment of everyone else and disproportionately inflicted real, lasting harm on working-class black and brown communities.”

“That’s why I applaud the work that Fritz and his team are doing to bring transparency, stability and predictability to the assessment system. And that is why I’m asking everyone in this room to be a part of the conversation to bring about the change that we all need — the change that we can only accomplish together,” she said.

“Every stakeholder must be heard and be at the table….That is why there needs to be an open dialogue among all stakeholders….My administration is committed to hearing the perspectives of everyone in this room.…I know Fritz shares that same commitment. By acting in good faith involving all stakeholders, I know that we can reach a compromise that strikes the right balances.”

Lightfoot noted that the city won’t be re-assessed until 2021 and that those assessments won’t appear on tax bills until 2022. But she said everything must be done now to “alleviate uncertainty during the interim period and ensure the assessment is done using the best possible data available.”

Towards that end, the mayor called the “rate simulator tool” created by the assessor’s office a “significant first step.”

“It will help people understand the relationship between the levy, property tax assessments and the overall base. It will provide the assurance that we all deserve.”