DeKalb County Taxpayers began with my own property tax appeal. I received notice of an assessment change with no details to support it and since I had made no changes to my property, I began to do some digging, beginning with gathering the data I would need. I would start with a property record card, the document on which the assessor inputs all home & land characteristics (square footage, total bedrooms, bathrooms, basement, etc). In order to obtain a copy, I had to go the local Assessor’s office, where they pulled a card out of a file cabinet of over 10,000. Not everyone has the time to do this in the thirty days allotted and within the Assessor’s less than 30-hour work week. I wondered if this was by design. Nonetheless, I completed the paperwork and filed.
The experience really got me thinking about the process a homeowner must go through to obtain information. As I pondered how this process could be dramatically better with the help of technology, I continued my research by assisting friends and neighbors in understanding and appealing their taxes. The bigger picture began to come together: many property owners had simply stopped paying attention or given up after one or two failed appeals. The difficult process, lack of work ethic on the part of the government employees that are supposed to represent us, and inconsistencies from neighbor-to-neighbor were being accepted at face value. This is Illinois, after all, with the worst-run government nationwide by many accounts. Maybe we’ve just come to expect that?
I continued on with my own appeal, and despite the nods in presenting my airtight case at the County level, was met again with complacency. I was returned a generic, even, and just slightly-lowered assessment. It looked as though someone had written down an arbitrary number on a cocktail napkin and passed it back to me after six months. The homeowner who appealed after me, a friend, received the exact same reduction that I did, despite having different homes and land characteristics. I asked for documentation as to how this perfectly-round number had been concocted; none was provided. Now I was frustrated with both the Assessor and the Board of Review.
This led me to look into how the Board of Review was appointed. I went to that County Board meeting with a stack of paper and list of questions: Who vetted these men? Did the County Board know what was taking place on the fourth floor of the county building? I was met with looks of disbelief at what I shared (think: relatives appointing relatives, past ethics violations, etc.). To the County Board’s credit, they immediately tabled the nominations. The information I shared would be passed to the Economic Development Committee to consider before reappointing Board of Review members. I then took a deeper look at where the members of the Economic Development Committee live in our community. I found that one member that was paying half of what his neighbor was, on an adjacent, identical lot. More appearance of impropriety.
I went to Economic Development Committee’s monthly meeting armed with 50 neighbors. I hoped to demonstrate what I had found – the inconsistencies, the broken process to obtain information, etc. I knew it in advance it would be difficult to express everything I wanted to say in the three minutes I would be allotted. But one-by-one, my neighbors stepped up to give me their three minutes and I was able to fully present the arsenal of information I had gathered. I realized this project I had been working on was bigger than I had thought.
I learned through my research that there is a database that houses most of the property tax data, but that it’s not accessible to citizens. And why would it be? The bureaucracy makes it harder for taxpayers to fight unfair assessments. Furthermore, today our local government has no incentive to improve its efficiency or its relationship with the community.
My goal has grown from simply fighting property taxes to helping bring real reform to DeKalb County. I would love to see our citizens vote for a referendum next election for an independent efficiency audit of the agencies that are levied against our properties. I have filed non-profit paperwork in the hopes to raise money to make this happen. I think it’s time that our local taxing bodies are held accountable for their actions and I’m excited for what’s to come.
ASSESSMENTS DONE ON A BY WHO YOU KNOW BASIS?
- On two, identical, adjacent lots in Sycamore (not those pictured above):
Lot A (owned by Joe Citizen) is valued at $78,465 FMV
$2,733 in property taxes due
- Lot B (owned by member of Economic Development Committee [who appoints Board of Review]) is valued at $26,718 FMV
$930 in property taxes due
This results in a difference of $1,802 dollars in property taxes due between identical, adjacent lots (note: this number does not include taxes on the dwelling/home).