The need for property tax reform in Cook County is as great as ever

People’s trust that they are being fairly taxed is central to their faith in government and democracy. So it was helpful for the Sun-Times to highlight problems with Cook County’s senior assessment freeze exemption. These are serious problems that must be corrected.

More helpful is the larger context that has emerged since the initial report. Abuse or misuse of the program affects just a fraction of 1 percent of existing exemptions — fewer than a hundred taxpayers out of the over 144,000 who get the exemption.

And rather than Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi being responsible for the errors, he is the one who identified the problem — long before the Sun-Times reported on it — and he has been working for many months to correct it. That includes contracting with an outside vendor to identify questionable exemptions, working with the Illinois Department of Revenue to develop ways of verifying income requirements and replacing the antiquated mainframe computer system — maintained long past its expiration date by Kaegi’s predecessor — that made it very difficult to correct exemption errors.

Indeed, Kaegi’s predecessor, Joe Berrios, is the person who should be held accountable for these problems — for failing to modernize his office, as experts across the country have testified, and for running a system that seemed to encourage errors in order to create business for the tax attorneys who filled Berrios’ campaign coffers. In the process, billions of dollars of tax burden were unfairly shifted onto poor and working class communities — and Berrios was enriched, along with political insiders like Mike Madigan and Ed Burke.

But the calls by county officials to delay sending out property tax bills until errors in the senior exemption program are corrected might best be understood as political grandstanding. They had no statutory authority to delay the bills or to demand oversight of a separate constitutional office (as confirmed last week by the Cook County state’s attorney). All of the cases identified by the Sun-Times have been corrected, along with many others, and notices of past taxes due are going out to those taxpayers. In any case, the cost to the individual taxpayer of the small number of errors amounts to less than $1.

The cost to school districts and other public bodies desperately waiting to fund their budgets, on the other hand, would be immense,

Particularly rich is the framing by County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, my successor, of her demand as protecting vulnerable populations and people of color. She supported the officials who created this problem. And she continued to back Berrios and Madigan after revelations that their broken property tax system cost low-income communities of color billions of dollars. When Berrios lost, she even brought his legal adviser into her office.

The need for reform in Cook County is as great as ever, and nowhere is that more evident than the property tax system — a fact highlighted by the new FBI investigation of the Board of Review. Electing a reformer like Fritz Kaegi is just one step in a long process, because the system that has benefited so many insiders is sure to push back. Taxpayers and voters are advised to read between the lines, and look behind the curtain to see who is pulling the strings of this puppet show.

David Orr is former Cook County Clerk and founder of Good Government Illinois.

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