One day before a hearing officer’s recommendation shook up the Democratic Primary race for Cook County Assessor, three candidates for the office met face-to-face in Melrose Park on Feb. 3 for a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Proviso Township Democratic Organization.

During a brief exchange that lasted about 15 minutes incumbent assessor Joseph Berrios warded off arguments that only raised the profile of a Chicago Tribune investigation that has been dogging him ever since its publication last June.

Fritz Kaegi, an Oak Park financial analyst, and tax analyst Andrea A. Raila — the incumbent’s two challengers — both praised the exhaustive Tribune report, which showed that Berrios’ office has refused to fix a property tax valuation system that “created an unequal burden on residents, handing huge financial breaks to homeowners who are well-off while punishing those who have the least, particularly people living in minority communities.”

“When we give multimillion-dollar tax breaks to Trump Tower, guess who makes up the difference? We do,” said Kaegi.

Kaegi’s campaign criticisms of Berrios’ office took on a lot more weight the following day, when a hearing officer recommended that Raila’s name be taken off the ballot due to problems with her nominating petitions.

A three-person electoral board is scheduled to consider the hearing officer’s recommendation and make a final vote on the matter on Friday. Raila has said that she will challenge the hearing officer’s ruling with the board and, if necessary, take her case to the circuit court. 

For now, though, the race seems to be a pitched battle between Kaegi and Berrios, who on Sunday defended his record as assessor and characterizing the problems found in the Chicago Tribune report as predating his time in office. 

“When I got down to the Assessor’s Office, I found a bunch of stuff going on that was totally wrong because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing,” Berrios said.

“We made sure we take care of people who come into the office,” he added. “In the old days, you’d have to wait an hour or two hours. We’ll get you out of there in 10 minutes. Another thing I’ve done is I’ve gone to Springfield to make sure homeowners and seniors get reductions. We increased the homeowner’s exemption this year and also increased the senior exemption and freeze from $55,000 to $65,000, so that more people can qualify for exemptions.”

Kaegi, said he is the only candidate in the race who is a certified Illinois assessment officer (“which is required for every township assessor and county assessor in the state except Cook County”) and that he would commit to three immediate priorities once he gets in office.

If elected, the Oak Park resident said, his first-year priorities in office would be to implement a valuation model “that is more accurate and less regressive,” reveal how taxpayers’ assessments are calculated, and refuse to tax donations from property tax appeals lawyers.

“I can do all of this in the first year without any new laws,” Kaegi said.


Race for county clerk narrows

The race for Cook County Clerk narrowed to two after Stephanie Joy Jackson-Rowe, of River Forest, was knocked off of the ballot earlier this month. Another candidate, Nick Shields, the director of communications for longtime incumbent county clerk David Orr, withdrew his nominating petitions. 

The race is now down to two candidates: Karen Yarbrough, a Maywood resident and the current Recorder of Deeds who many consider to be the putative front-runner, and attorney Jan Kowalski. 

The Cook County clerk presides over suburban Cook County elections, maintains vital records and property tax information, and records the activities of the Cook County Board. 

Last November, around two-thirds of voters approved a binding referendum that calls for the consolidation of the Recorder of Deeds office into the Cook County Clerk’s office.

Supporters of the merger said that it would save county taxpayers money while Yarbrough said that the cost-savings would be minuscule compared with the costs of getting rid of valuable services that the recorder’s office provided and the clerk’s office did not.