Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A few thoughts after Monday's event

I’d like to thank all of the elected officials and taxpayers who’ve helped us, Marty Paulson and our other panelists, Sen. Bond and Rep. Ed Sullivan and our board Steve Minsky, Dick Hosteny, Jack Bigelow, Frank Mynard and Thor Madsen. There are countless others and I salute you. We are neighbors working together in a democratic way.

About two years ago, angry taxpayers were ready to burn their blue cards and tax bills. They shouted taxation without representation! They were ready to ignite an effigy of a public official – it didn’t matter whom.

Fortunately, after a group of neighbors got together and organized into our non-profit, non-partisan group – The Citizens Action Project – we put together our first white paper on the assessment process. We concluded that it lacked fairness, accountability and transparency. We then submitted our findings to the Lake County Board, the media and to anyone who was interested. But our non-profit, non-partisan, all-volunteer group didn’t stop there.

We thought there should be a law against covering up or failing to disclose how our homes are valued for tax purposes. So we sought the help of Sen. Michael Bond in writing legislation. We literally took our ideas from porch to porch, living room to living room, to craft a bill. Along the way, we solicited the support of State Rep. Ed Sullivan, Jr., who is also the Fremont Township assessor. Together, and I mean in a true collaboration that eliminated party lines and partisan differences, we hewed together a strong bill to open up the vagaries of assessments.

But Illinois politics being what it is and despite our champions’ great efforts in deflecting various lobbies and opponents, passing both houses didn’t get this bill to the governor’s desk last year. You would’ve had an easier time getting Elvis to do one last concert than unravel the mess in Springfield that held up our bill. In fact, given what’s happened in state politics over the last year, it seems like Elvis is still indeed alive, if in another form.

Then the extraordinary happened. The General Assembly realized that nothing would get done without a big change and it transacted one. Our bill was reintroduced, was passed by both houses and quietly signed by Governor Quinn – perhaps too quietly for us. The Homeowners Assessment Transparency Act is a cause for celebration and a tool for taxpayer rights!

So here we are, a new law in hand to help you ask the right questions. Instead of tormenting an inflamed angry mob, democracy has achieved a rare moment of success in the prairie state. We hope to illuminate at least one problem that has vexed taxpayers for years.

THE BLUE CARD

I’m sure many of you have received your assessment notices from the county assessment office. What used to be called a blue card now contains six times more information than its postcard predecessor.

Now you know precisely who to contact to ask questions about your assessment, how much your land and building rose or declined in value, and most importantly, how to appeal your valuation. On the back of the form is how the tax process works and exemptions that may apply.

Of course, this new form does not tell you exactly how your assessment was calculated and precisely why it went up or down. You’ll still need to contact the chief county and township assessor to ask how equalizations and valuations work.

Although they might tell you it’s part of a computer program, don’t take that for an answer. Ask about comparable properties used in their formula. Ask about how the formula is arrived at. And if you’re not satisfied with their answers, challenge them with a formal, certified appraisal or a list of similar properties.

You also have a right to appeal, which we discovered in our last white paper, isn’t the fairest process, either. We’re working on that with a special commission chaired by Pat Carey, our local county board rep. The bottom line is: IF you don’t think your assessment is fair, challenge it, first through the local assessor, then through the board of review or state tax appeal board. There’s more on our website: www.citizensactionproject.org.

This is some of the work we’ve done and we will continue to do more.

We are pushing to improve the board of review process. We don’t think appellants get a fair shake when they appeal their assessments and we want to fix the process.

Since we’ve organized, we’ve seen new, improved rules come out of the Board that open up the mystery behind what constitutes a good case for an appeal. Of course we have much more to do and will do more with your help.

We’re also looking into the other side of the tax bill – levies. These are the percentages that each taxing body takes from your property taxes to run things like schools, libraries and towns. Tonight we’re hoping to understand a little better how that system works. We’re also looking into the massive number of taxing bodies in Illinois, which has more of them than any other state. Rather than decry or identify each one of them – and there are more than 6,000 – we hope to understand if any of them can be consolidated to lower property-tax bills. Again, with your help, we can do that.

How can you help? You can donate time, money or your expertise. We need informed board members to help guide our mission. We need folks who have done grant writing and fundraising. We need analysts and auditors. If we do this right, we will be able to build a team of citizen auditors who are independently checking to see that our tax dollars are being spent prudently and can suggest ways to save.

So if you can help, please see any of our board members before your leave, or sign a sheet at the door. We can also take donations. If you choose to volunteer, the pay is lousy but the satisfaction infinite. Democracy may be a messy business, but ii can’t work unless we all get involved in some way. I think our group is proof that a small group can make a huge impact.

Thanks again and keep fighting for fairness, accountability and transparency!

John Wasik
President, CAP

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