The Cook County Assessor’s Office’s 100 Day Plan: 50 days and counting

As part of our commitment to transparency, we promised updates to our 100 Day Plan. This is the first of those updates and covers all the departments of the Cook County Assessor’s Office with a focus on changes which started on Day One.

Today marks the halfway point of our 100 Day Plan. Our next update will be published at the conclusion of our first 100 days. It will include accomplishments from that first 100 days as well as next steps we will take on the rest of our plan.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is sworn in as Cook County Assessor on Monday, December 3rd, 2018 by Chief of Staff Sarah Garza Resnick, a notary public and former Chief of Staff to former Cook County Clerk David Orr.

ADMINISTRATION AND OPERATIONS

Most of our first month was spent on operational changes led by the Chief Administrative Officer, Annette C. Moore.

On Day One, we ended the employment of anyone in the assessor’s office who received their job purely through favoritism or nepotism.

In our first week, we successfully rolled out an interim organizational structure that removed operational silos and put all valuations-related operations under the management of the Deputy Assessor — Chief Valuations Officer.

Previously, valuations-related processes fell under the responsibility of three Deputy Assessors. Consolidating all such processes under one Deputy Assessor will provide for better continuity of service and consistency of assessment methodology.

Working with the Board of Review, we created the 2019 assessment year calendar, which lays out when each township in the North Triad of Cook County will be assessed. In addition, we’ve determined when appeal and exemption forms will be made available for all of the county. This calendar is available on our website here and will be updated as new dates are available.

Assessor Kaegi promised the people of Cook County that our office would be led by professional, experienced leaders in their fields. To date, we have hired 88% of our new leadership team with three more hires pending.

As part of our employee feedback initiatives, we held five town hall meetings (including at our branch offices in Skokie, Markham and Bridgeview), as well as smaller listening sessions with each department. The listening sessions served as opportunities for us to hear from employees about how each department works and how it could operate more effectively. Employees also provided feedback to the new leadership team on the new mission and vision of the office. Their feedback centered on how we can make the office more transparent, ethical and fair.

Lastly, we’ve begun an audit of our operations and processes with the International Association of Assessing Officers. We now have a team of experts from the IAAO engaged with our office, assisting the Assessor and his leadership team in identifying ways our office can adopt best practices in assessment methodologies and operations. We will provide further updates on this effort in future reports.

LEGAL

Led by Chief Legal Officer Tatia Gibbons, the legal team crafted an executive ethics order that Assessor Kaegi executed on Day One. We are preparing training about the order that will be provided to employees in the next 30–45 days.

We also developed a visitors log pursuant to the ethics order which requires visitors to sign in when meeting with deputies and directors. This log will provide greater transparency about our office’s activity and will be posted monthly. You can see the December visitors log here.

We also reviewed the responsibilities of the taxpayer advocate group with Chief Deputy Assessor Sarah Garza Resnick and revamped its role by relocating them in an area more accessible to all taxpayers. We are also developing additional oversight processes for this group and other work in our office.

Assessor Kaegi speaks to employees of the Assessor’s Office during a town hall-style meeting.

POLICY

Our office’s policy team, led by Chief Policy Officer Abdelnasser Rashid, has initiated conversations with lawmakers about the need for data modernization to help improve assessments. Our goal is to improve our data collection and bring the Cook County Assessor’s Office in line with professional standards across the industry. Our first priority is a data modernization bill that collects operating income and expense data for income-generating commercial properties at the start of the assessment process. This information is already collected by the Board of Review and is something that many other assessment offices around the country already receive from property owners. By collecting income and expense data up front — on an anonymized and bulk basis — our modeling and valuations teams will be able to take current market rents, vacancy rates, and trends into account, and deliver fair, accurate and transparent assessments.

Making sure our office is in line with best practices around the country is what will guide our policy efforts in the months to come. We look forward to working with lawmakers in Springfield and a variety of stakeholders to make this a reality.

VALUATIONS

We recently hired Donald J. Meyer as our Chief Valuations Officer. He and his team are working on various changes to our commercial and residential valuations.

These changes start with reviewing the current rules, procedures, and filings pertaining to appeals, affidavits, and certificates of errors.

For example, we’ve changed the process of approval for Certificates of Corrections and assessor review by adding an extra audit and approval layer. This change increases the oversight of our work.

Other improvements to the assessment process we have made this month include:

  • Stratifying income properties into the appropriate income models
  • Utilizing market data and applying the data to the correct property classifications
  • Evaluating the process the office used to defend assessments and adopting best practices used in various assessment jurisdictions across the nation
  • Engaging with local business owners and industry organizations to improve the quality of our assessment data
Assessor Kaegi speaks to the South Suburban chapter meeting of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials about reforms in the Assessor’s Office.

DATA

Our data department is a new addition to the CCAO and is headed up by Chief Data Officer Rob Ross. Part of our commitment to fairness is overhauling our use of data to develop models, algorithms, and procedures that estimate fair market values accurately and without bias.

We are continuing to migrate data critical to modeling from the AS400, a server first introduced into the market in 1988, into a modern SQL server, allowing for seamless and transparent data preparation.

Much of our work will be developed in R, a widely used, powerful, open-source statistical platform. During our first month, our data department drafted R scripts to ingest, transform, model, and report on the valuations process. These will eventually be published in a public GitLab account.

We also introduced rigorous quality control testing into various stages of the valuations process. Producing final valuations involves many steps, and we will be measuring the impact of each step on the overall fairness of the system. For example, it is standard procedure to manually review residential sales that we believe may contain inaccurate information, correcting errors where we find them. We want to be able to measure the impact of this procedure on the overall performance of our model.

We have also committed to publicly posting the models and algorithms used for assessment modeling.

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Our IT department, headed up by Chief Information Officer Nathan Bernacchi, has been hard at work making changes to our website and technical infrastructure.

On Day One, we made our 100 Day Plan, deputy assessor staff list and ethics order available to the public online.

Since then, we’ve updated social media links and began developing the scope of our new website with a focus on providing true online services to taxpayers (not just printable forms).

Our first month made it clear just how big a job this will be. Re-launching our website will be something we do within our first year, not the first 100 Days.

We also removed all banner advertising from the website. In addition to opening the office up to ethical concerns, these ads were a confusing user experience for many people. Our leadership team felt the ethics of this change and the enhanced customer service experience were more important than the relatively small amount of revenue we received from these ads.

Our IT department is reviewing current technology contracts held by the county to discover areas of collaboration with other agencies, which will allow us to adopt more current technology and procedures such as:

  • Upgrading and standardizing our Microsoft Office suite to Office 365 for better productivity and internal collaboration
  • Using GIS mapping software to create a mobile app for our field staff and utilizing tablet computers
  • Assessment and auditing of IT infrastructure
  • Developing a security audit plan for vulnerability scanning and data/internet security

One of the things we’ve found is that much of the office depends on paper. This dependency results in lots of walls of boxes like you see here:

The Assessor’s Office needs to adopt more digital-friendly processes, as evidenced by this wall of paper records on the 9th floor of our office.

We recognize the need for a long-term plan that creates a more digitally-driven Assessor’s Office. Fully implementing such a plan will take years, but it can and will be done.

COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH

On Day One, our communications and outreach team, led by Chief Communications Officer Scott Smith, relaunched our Facebook and Twitter accounts to offer better communication with the public. While this may seem like a small thing, the Assessor’s Office had not been using Facebook since 2016 and had not used Twitter since 2010. Taxpayers can now use these channels to get answers to questions they have about our office.

We also relaunched our YouTube channel, which had not been used since 2013. Our first video is of Assessor Kaegi’s swearing-in where he lays out our plans for the first 100 Days. More videos will follow.

As part of our promise to develop more transparent relationships with journalists and the media (and therefore the public), we:

Assessor Fritz Kaegi on Chicago Tonight

We also spoke with reporters at Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times within our first week.

Our office continues to hold outreach events. We’ve held eight in the past month-and-a-half at several locations including the Mexican Consulate, Habitat For Humanity and Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

We are also planning a listening tour of Cook County when Assessor Kaegi will hear from and speak to taxpayers and community groups. This listening tour is planned for March through May of this year and will be organized with our partners in the Cook County Commissioners’ district offices.

Finally, we are meeting with various professional groups within our communities and neighborhoods over the next couple months, including the South Suburban Association of School Business Officials, the Real Estate Investors Association, the Appraisal Institute, the CFA Society and the City Club of Chicago. Look for updates about these events on our social media channels.

To request an outreach event or speaker at your next event, contact our communications department at outreach@cookcountyassessor.com.

FUTURE UPDATES

We will publish the next update on our efforts at the end of our first 100 days.

Please follow our Facebook and Twitter accounts for regular updates from our office.

Signed, 
The Assessor and Deputy Assessors of the Cook County Assessor’s Office

Cook County Assessor: Fritz Kaegi
Chief Deputy Assessor: Sarah Garza Resnick
Deputy Assessor — Chief Administrative Officer: Annette C. Moore
Deputy Assessor — Chief Communications Officer: Scott Smith
Deputy Assessor — Chief Data Officer: Robert Ross
Deputy Assessor — Chief Information Officer: Nathan Bernacchi
Deputy Assessor — Chief Legal Officer: Tatia Gibbons
Deputy Assessor — Chief Policy Officer: Abdelnasser Rashid
Deputy Assessor — Chief Valuations Officer: Donald J. Meyer