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Tax assessment appeal session attracts crowd, questions

The turnout for an information session on tax assessments on Aug. 19 at Homewood village hall had Village Manager Napoleon Haney scrambling to find more chairs. One of the presenters, Thornton Township Assessor Cassandra Elston estimated as many as 70 people arrived to ask questions and learn more about the process of appealing property tax assessments.

Elston and Rich Township Assessor Sam Brown spent about two hours fielding those questions and explaining how the somewhat complex process works, including the role of township assessors.

Property reassessment is done by the Cook County Assessor’s Office every three years, and Thornton Township reassessment was completed recently.

Elston guessed that many in attendance had been informed the assessed value of their property had gone up, and she explained one factor that contributed to increases for many home owners.

County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, she said, had reduced assessed value by 8% to 12% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the pandemic is over, that decrease is being rescinded.

She also cited an increase in foreclosures in recent years as a factor. When foreclosed homes are purchased and renovated, their value increases, putting upward pressure on prices of other homes in the community, even if the other homes haven’t been improved.

Brown explained that the county assessor’s job is to determine fair property values across the board. The Board of Review, however, is there to look more closely at individual properties and make adjustments if circumstances warrant. He said township assessors are liaisons between residents and the County Assessor’s Office or Board of Review.

“We really are advocates for our residents, because we’re right there in the neighborhood,” he said. “We have clients come in on the verge of tears often because they can’t stand some of these tax bills. And so we’re obviously very sympathetic to that.”

Brown and Elston said the county assessor’s office can receive appeals, but both recommended appealing to the Board of Review because appeals can have a better chance of succeeding there.

Brown, who has served on the Board of Review in the past, said property owners are likely to get a more sympathetic hearing there, although they still have to make a solid case for their appeal. He also cautioned the audience that successful appeals are not without consequences.

“Keep in mind that for every reduction that somebody gets somebody else’s making up the slack for them, because if the taxing body wants $10 million in their levy, they’re going to get $10 million in their levy,” he said. “If 20% of the people get reductions, 80% is gonna pick up the slack so that they can get their $10 million.”

Brown said tax payers who are upset about rising assessments and higher tax bills should focus on the inequities built into the system.

Most of the questions from members of the audience focused on the process of filing an appeal, especially the task of identifying comparable properties that can be used to make a case that an assessment was too high.

Property owners need to identify other properties in their area with similar size and building materials, then compare the assessed value per square foot of those properties with their own. If the comparable properties have a lower assessed value, that helps make the case in the appeal.

Brown said township assessor’s offices can help owners identify properties with which to compare their own.

Another issue the audience had questions about was various types of exemptions, including the homeowners’ exemption, which renews automatically, and the senior freeze, which has to be applied for each year. Elston explained the need for reapplication is because the county assessor’s office would have no way of knowing whether a home had sold to someone who is not a senior and does not qualify for the assessment freeze otherwise.

Elston said she had done a dozen similar assessment appeal workshops in the two weeks prior to the one in Homewood and had eight more scheduled for the rest of August.

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