To inform voters and to help the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board make endorsements, the board posed a series of questions to the candidates running for Cook County assessor. See how other the other candidate answered here.
- Candidate name: Kari K. Steele
- Running for: Cook County assessor
- Residence: Chicago
- Current occupation: President of the Board of Commissioners at The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
- Previous political experience (elective and appointed positions): Commissioner, First District, Cook County Board of Commissioners, 2014-18
- Education: Pre-Med degree in Chemistry from Xavier University of Louisiana
- Spouse’s occupation: Owner and Media Personality at WIIFTBP Media; President of The Intelligence Group, LTD; founder of the Black People First political organization
- Sources of outside income: None
Property taxes are one of the most important—and potentially vexing—expenses in any residential or commercial taxpayer’s budget. Give us your take on how these four years have gone in terms of fixing what was horribly broken under the stewardship of Joseph Berrios. What worked, and what didn’t work?
I don’t believe anyone who has been paying attention would say the last four years at the Assessor’s office have gone well. I agree that there are serious and legitimate criticisms of former Assessor Berrios and the way he ran the office; however, the property tax bills went out on time compared to the 6-month delay under the current Assessor. As the Tribune has reported, it’s likely bills that were supposed to go out in August, 2022 won’t go out until January, 2023, preventing taxpayers from deducting their tax payments on their federal tax returns. That would be a disaster for homeowners. How are businesses and residents supposed to plan their own budgets when the disfunction of the Assessor’s office causes tax bills to be repeatedly delayed?
The Assessor’s “modernization” of the office has been described by Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers, Jr. as a “disastrous implementation of new technology,” and has caused significant problems with the internal database and the transmission of data to other County offices. This makes it very difficult for other County offices to function properly. Additionally, there is a ripple effect. The Assessor is behind on this year’s bills and it’s pushing all his work back that needs to be done ahead of next year. Unless someone comes in with a workable plan to catch up and get back on track, we will face this problem over and over again.
The Assessor has been very divisive in his term in office by pitting neighborhoods against each other, as well as homeowners and the business community against each other. He came in with an agenda picking winners and losers, insisting that commercial properties need to pay more instead of following the market. The problem is that not all commercial properties are downtown skyscrapers. The majority are neighborhood small businesses that have seen their assessments double.
The market doesn’t indicate that small businesses in Pilsen should see assessment increases of 90-100%, nor does it indicate that industrial properties that provide local jobs should see increases of 200-300%. This will gut communities that are in desperate need of more economic development, not less. And what will happen to homeowner’s property values when main street shutters? They’ll plummet and the entire tax base will shrink.
These extreme changes are coming at a time when working homeowners, large employers and small businesses are especially struggling with the financial impacts of the COVID epidemic and record-breaking inflation. We need an Assessor committed to bringing Cook County together and assessing properties predictably and reliably in a way that ensures our County is an affordable place to live and do business in.
I also do not believe the Assessor has gone far enough in ethics reform for his office. I will install a full time Chief Ethics Officer, whose sole responsibility is tending to the ethics of the Assessor’s office. This full-time position does not exist in the Assessor’s office. The Chief Ethics Officer will publish regular reports so the public is fully aware of how ethics rules are enforced in the office. No such report is currently published.
Overall, the Assessor has poorly managed the office in a way that hurts taxpayers, divided Cook County at a time when we need to come together more than ever, increased costs for homeowners and businesses, and not gone far enough in ethics reform. It is time for new leadership, and that is why I am running for Assessor.
Ensuring minority communities do not bear the brunt of higher assessments is important. So is ensuring that commercial property taxes don’t rise so high that businesses begin leaving Cook County. What is the best way to balance those two goals?
I really appreciate this question, and I think it highlights that the assessment process is a balance of needs important to Cook County and changes to it need to be well-thought out. As the first Black woman Assessor, I will fight for a property tax system that puts equity first and creates stability for businesses, relief for homeowners, and funds the necessary public services that Cook County residents deserve. This is personal for me. I come from the communities that have been historically over-assessed. I lived the ramifications, and I see the damage the current Assessor is still doing.
We need to prioritize tax relief for struggling residents and simplify the tax appeals process for all Cook County residents by making it both user-friendly and transparent. You shouldn’t need a PhD in accounting to understand how your property value is assessed or why your appeal was or wasn’t accepted. My office will do a much better job of explaining the assessment process, as well as possible tax relief opportunities, to Cook County residents. I believe homeowners deserve accountability and predictability in their taxes, which I have delivered at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) and will do again as Assessor.
The Assessor ran for office on a platform of transparency for taxpayers. However, he’s refused to say why he gave certain people tax breaks, including some of his political donors, and his office is responding to FOIAs months late, if at all. He’s also giving taxpayers false hope that tax rates will decrease despite the fact that assessments have increased, leading them to believe that their bills won’t increase as dramatically as their assessments.
For businesses, I will make sure they have a stable tax system that doesn’t force them to pay extra for mismanagement and waste, allowing them to create good-paying jobs for our working families. As Assessor, I will look at reinstating a sensible vacancy policy, because many local businesses are still shuttered from the pandemic and need a fair valuation. The office’s incentive system, including programs designed to increase investment in commercial and industrial development, also needs to be examined and adjusted. The process currently takes far too long, can be disrupted by technicalities, and does not always award correct incentive value to encourage economic development. And in order to encourage and support development throughout the County, the Assessor’s office needs to work better with other local governments to provide property relief mechanisms to ensure local businesses can afford any marginal property tax increases.
Additionally, news reports described the Assessor’s Covid relief factor as “botched” and based off of faulty assumptions. For example, they assumed Ravenswood and Englewood would experience the same level of unemployment. His own former Chief Data Officer says it was all a mistake. Nevertheless, the Assessor has since said he stands by it, even though it resulted in inequitable relief, both in that he only gave relief to homeowners, not small businesses, and—because of how he calculated the relief—a home in Ravenswood got more relief than a home in Englewood, which shifted the tax burden onto low-income communities. This was exactly the thing the Assessor ran on fixing, and instead he exacerbated it with a program his office had no purview putting in place.
Should the assessor’s office push lawmakers in Springfield to get rid of Cook County’s tax classification system that assesses commercial and industrial properties at a higher rate than homeowners—a 2.5 to 1 difference?
I believe the tax classification system must be adjusted over time by gradual changes to the assessment rates. Numerous studies, including one published by the Civic Federation, have shown that the unraveling of the classification system all at once would cause sudden, significant tax burden shifts that would severely undermine the stability of the Cook County property tax system and all the vital public services it funds.
Changes should be targeted and with purpose. We need to look at the specific local business sectors most impacted by higher taxes and how best to provide relief to them. A good historical example would be the change that was made for “mom and pop” businesses by reclassifying them as residential. Any changes need to be well-researched before they are made in order to prevent any significant disruption to the property tax system.
The process of tax assessments is arcane and complicated. What can the assessor’s office do to make the process more understandable for both residential and commercial property taxpayers?
I completely agree that we need to simplify the property tax assessment and tax appeals process for all Cook County residents and businesses by making it both user-friendly and transparent. As I mentioned previously, you shouldn’t need a PhD in accounting to understand how your property value is assessed or why your appeal was or wasn’t accepted. The Assessor claims he’s made everything transparent online, but he’s basically published a lot of math that the average person can’t and shouldn’t have to understand.
To do a better job of explaining the assessment process to Cook County residents, the Assessor’s office needs to clearly communicate the data we have and use in the assessment process. And we need to explain the system in terms that the taxpayers understand. A good example is an annual press release from the Cook County Clerk’s office on the property tax rate changes that lays out how the rate changes impact hypothetical residential and commercial properties in each section of the County. I also strongly feel that data disclosures and reports from the Assessor’s office should be straightforward and not used to pit one group of taxpayers against another.
The assessment process involves many variables across many professions and communities in Cook County. To make property valuations more predictable and transparent, I will establish regular community outreach by hiring a team of community liaisons, who will be tasked with keeping regular and open communication with stakeholders, units of local government and community members so the process is less complicated and more understandable. I will run an open, accessible office to all.
As President of the MWRD, I have delivered accountability and predictability to taxpayers and will do so again as Assessor.
Under Berrios, ethics rules were routinely ignored, and patronage and nepotism were the norm. Have those problems been completely addressed, or is there more work to do? If there is, please explain what additional reforms you would carry out.
We need to take the next step and install the first full-time Chief Ethics officer and issue regular ethics reports. While President of the MWRD, we hired our first Inspector General because I believe transparency and accountability are integral to good government.
Additionally, the office has serious problems responding to FOIAs. There are numerous reports of FOIAs going unanswered (including those my campaign has submitted) and others being answered months, not days, behind the five-day window. This is unacceptable.
Give us the best example of when you displayed independence from your party or staked out an unpopular position.
My independence in this race is clear as I am not the slated candidate of the Cook County Democratic Party. I’m fighting a tough campaign because I believe my party is backing the wrong person and the Assessor’s office needs a competent manager.
Sum up why you believe voters should nominate you and not your opponent.
I was the first Black woman President of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and I would be the first woman and the first Black Assessor. It’s time for new leadership and a new way of thinking. We don’t need a millionaire banker from Oak Park telling the Black community he’s going to fix our problems while going after our small businesses and job producers.
I didn’t plan on running for Assessor, but I’ve seen the problems that need to be addressed and I recognize inexperience when I see it. I will fix the broken property tax system, increase community outreach, make the appeals process easy and friendly for property owners, and work in partnership—not as opponents—with my colleagues at the County.
I will fix the property tax exemptions programs, which have been badly mismanaged. The Sun-Times has reported on problems with the Senior freeze and veteran’s exemptions. As Assessor I will do a full audit of these programs and ensure these mistakes aren’t made in the future.
I will also work with municipalities to develop a better incentives program that encourages business development instead of making builders question whether or not to build in Cook County.
We don’t need any more blame games and finger pointing. We need a process that’s based in equity, fairness and data. As President of the MWRD, I hired the first ever Inspector General, initiated audits of all lease agreements, maintained a AAA bond rating and oversaw a billion-dollar budget. I bring a decade of government management experience coupled with a real-life understanding of the working families and small businesses who are suffering under high assessments. We need a qualified manager to lead the Assessor’s office. I’ve done it at the MWRD and I will do it again.