Property taxpayers in Cook County who were upset that their bills landed roughly four months later than usual have little clarity about the timing of next year’s bills, as county commissioners were told last month that a key technology upgrade meant to speed the bill process along is unlikely to be finished before the end of 2023.
It will be a top issue confronting the new Board of Review commissioners who were sworn in Monday and who could potentially help thaw the icy relations between the three-member board and leadership in the county assessor’s office.
Normally, bills for the second half of the year are sent to property owners in June and July, and due by Aug. 1. This year, thanks at least in part to a tech mismatch between the assessor and Board of Review, bills have only begun landing in mailboxes in recent days. Payment is due by Dec. 30.
For many taxpayers in Chicago, the bills were not only late but also came with sizable increases, as they’re the first to reflect new property assessments that helped drive up the median bill in many neighborhoods, in one case as much as $2,200.
County officials have said they expect another postponement for the 2023 bills that are typically due by August, though it is not clear how late those bills might be. Delays from one office can cascade down to others. But Cook County Board commissioners say upgrades are “critical” to getting the bill process back on track.
There is politics at play: Delays this year prompted a raft of complaints from residents to County Board members’ offices, stress for other elected officials involved in the property tax process, and a lag in revenues for taxing bodies across the county. The delay also means taxpayers will soon experience a double-whammy property tax payment: The next installment is due by March 1.
The two new commissioners who were sworn in Monday to the Board of Review — the quasi-judicial body where property assessment appeals are heard — are Samantha Steele, who replaces Michael Cabonargi, and former Chicago Ald. George Cardenas, who replaces Tammy Wendt. Incumbent Larry Rogers Jr., the loudest critic of Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s tenure, is also being sworn in for a sixth term. Steele, Cardenas and Rogers are Democrats.
Steele has been in the appraisal industry for more than 15 years. She is currently on the Property Tax Board of Appeals for Lake County, Indiana. Her past ties to Kaegi — she led commercial valuations in his office for roughly a year — might help patch up relations between the two offices.
She disagrees with some of Kaegi’s methods — including some of the assumptions he uses to calculate commercial valuations, known as the “cap rate” — but shares his commitment to data-driven valuations and equity.
“I don’t view Fritz as an enemy. Both offices should have the goal of ensuring assessments are as accurate as possible,” Steele told the Tribune.
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She also shares Kaegi’s stated commitment to updating technology. She has already pitched a new system to speed up appeals for homeowners: automated valuation models. Currently, residential properties are reviewed individually by analysts against a database of comparable homes. Steele argues using AVMs to process residential appeals en masse would allow multiple homes within a community area to be simultaneously compared with similar ones to determine whether they are accurately assessed.
She says she’s already talked to other elected officials about the system and hopes to get them on board this year. “We can process more appeals in less time, eliminate the need for overtime, and taxpayers are assured that the process is fair and equitable,” Steele said in a release last month.
Cardenas, who was the 12th Ward alderman for nearly 20 years before he was elected to the board, endorsed Kaegi during his first election bid in 2018. “As far as the strife,” between the Board of Review and assessor, Cardenas pledged to lower the temperature of the disagreements, saying “We’re going to handle it.”
Given that Cardenas has pledged during the campaign to beef up the board’s tech to “increase efficiencies, save money and provide taxpayers a better and more accurate review of their appeals,” Steele says she hopes Cardenas will support her move to automate.
Most of the county offices still “push and pull” property tax data from an old mainframe computer system. For years, most of the county offices have been undertaking upgrades to move off of it. During an unusually testy meeting of the Cook County Board’s Technology Committee last month, commissioners learned that a tech upgrade to the system the Board of Review uses to push and pull that data with the assessor is still in flux.
The assessor’s office contends that if the Board of Review does not move off of its current reliance on the outdated mainframe by the fourth quarter of next year, the offices will have to once again make due with the duplicative, sometimes manual work to transfer data.
“Getting the Board of Review off the mainframe is critical,” Cook County Commissioner and committee Chair Kevin Morrison told the Tribune. “Getting all of these separately elected offices on the same page, working together to make sure that we are better serving our residents is a huge concern.”
Part of last year’s problems revolved around Kaegi’s upgrades from the mainframe to an updated property tax system being integrated with other county offices. The ultimate goal of the upgrade was to centralize property tax processing into that system, called Tyler iasWorld, by the end of 2020, but full implementation has been repeatedly delayed.
The BOR has used a separate software platform for several years, and was not party to the original Tyler contract. Steele says the board should move to the Tyler platform for efficiency’s sake.
To transfer data this past year, the county essentially built an interface between the assessor and the Board of Review, said Kaegi spokesman Scott Smith. They may have to use that “side road” solution again in 2023. The Board of Review “can drive on the road and we can drive on the road, but the road is bumpy and unpaved. We could really use a professional grade, fully paved expressway level road to where we’re going.”
Delays will not be as acute at the assessor’s office in the coming year, Smith said, because their updated tech has “allowed us to work faster.”
BOR officials have said the initial trigger for the bill delay started with the assessor’s office, and that threw off their appeals cycle, which typically lasts 300 days. Because the property tax process is cyclical, and the next office can’t start its work until the last is finished, such delays are difficult to catch up from. Speeding it up might mean fewer opportunities for property owners to seek corrections, the BOR says.
Asked by Morrison if there was “any work” going on at the Board of Review to transition off of the mainframe, BOR deputy William O’Shields said the agency has only just begun to “engage” a vendor “to find out what may be needed” to make the systems work better together. Tyler, the board says, is responsible for helping build a workaround allowing the BOR system and Kaegi’s to transfer data smoothly.