Earlier this month, property owners in Grant and Wauconda townships received notices about changes in the assessed values of their properties. Those values determine the distribution of the tax burden.
Property taxpayers have until Sept. 15 to appeal their valuations.
Grant Township Assessor Jeri Barr said the process is geared against those who don’t have the time, the ability or resources to appeal their assessed values. Her township includes all or parts of Fox Lake, Lakemoor, Round Lake and Volo.
Those who appeal tend to be those with higher-value properties or big businesses, Barr said.
Appeals go to the Lake County Board of Review, which can consider sales of comparable properties after the township assessor’s office did its work. In a time of declining values, this gives an unfair advantage to those who appeal, she said.
Ray Hibnick, a Board of Review member, disagreed.
“Everyone has a chance to appeal,” he said. “Everyone is notified of that in writing. There is no charge.”
Martin Paulson, the county’s chief assessment officer, said taxpayers have the right and responsibility to check their assessments.
“A lot of taxpayers have managed to navigate this process,” he said. “A lot of resources are available to them. It’s not as intimidating a process as people think.”
When the Board of Review decides to lower valuations, Barr said, that affects those who don’t appeal, increasing their tax burdens.
“There are more appeals for high-value properties. Commercial appeals are a killer. They hire attorneys to do the work for them,” Barr said.
The property tax system, she said, is complicated “by design.”
“There are plenty of people who aren’t computer savvy,” Barr said. “They don’t have the tools to submit evidence. To sit down and explain the system, it’ll be an hour each time. We tell taxpayers how to find comparables. We have even done grid sheets for taxpayers.
“I’ll settle a lot of cases in my office rather than have them go to the county. Going to the county is an inconvenience for them,” she said. Those who appeal are likely to “have more revenue to hire someone or more free time on their hands. Usually, they are better off. How is that fair?”
‘Assessments were often the scapegoat’
Two weeks ago, the assessed values for properties in Wauconda and Grant townships appeared in special sections inserted into Lake County Suburban Life. That information allows residents to compare their properties’ assessed values with their neighbors.
“In 2013, the sales we have seen are promising,” Wauconda Township Assessor Patricia Oaks said. “Their values are going up a little more. We have seen construction in Volo. We are seeing permits for new houses. We have seen parcels with foreclosures selling. For a while, they were sitting there.”
Homeowners, she said, are feeling more comfortable about putting their properties on the market.
Barr said her office still is seeing declining assessed values.
“That’s primarily because of an outdated property tax code that requires the use of the three previous years. We’re basing our values on 2011, 2012 and 2013 sales,” she said. “We have had a lot of distress sales in our township. 2011 and 2012 are still keeping our values down.”
Once the “terrible” years drop off, she said, assessed values should start climbing.
Both assessors said people often blame them for their taxes, yet it’s the taxing bodies that establish how much tax money they need – known as tax levies.
In 2012, Barr issued a public letter explaining this process. Declining property values, she said, have not provided property tax relief. In fact, taxes went up, as taxing bodies asked for more money, she wrote.
“In the rapidly appreciating real estate market of a few years ago, assessments were often the scapegoat [for higher taxes],” she said. “Now most people understand that assessments are not the problem; government spending is.”
‘They have no one else to yell at’
Barr said she has worked with others to push government agencies to lower taxes.
“I’ve organized a group to go to the schools, and we did get Big Hollow [school district] not to increase their tax levy one year.”
Both Wauconda and Grant’s assessors said they give phone numbers and meeting times of taxing bodies to residents.
“People come into office to see if they have grounds for appeals,” Barr said. “When they get their tax bills, they yell at us because they have no one else to yell at.”