Friday, July 16, 2010

Lake Co. clerk hopes video explains real estate tax process

By Mick Zawislak
Daily Herald

The skid in real estate values has been well documented. So why would your property tax bill increase? "There's no one answer. There are multiple issues that impact it," explained Lake County Clerk Willard Helander. While an explanation may not make taxpayers feel better, Helander said an understanding of the process could help prepare them if they choose to appeal.

With that, Helander has posted a 12-minute video at explaining how property tax rates are calculated. Essentially, the bill is the total of all the rates multiplied by the value of the property as determined for taxing purposes. How it gets to that point is what the video tries to explain. "The biggest question in most people's minds is what calculations determine the total amount of my tax bill to be paid," she said. In the video, Helander reviews the basics including how that happens and other factors that can influence the total. "It gets confusing because there are so many pieces to the puzzle," she said.

The bottom line, however, is taxing bodies in some cases can increase the rate to make up for lost value. Tax caps don't apply to home rule communities, for example. "The assessments themselves have definitely gone down. The tax bills have not really gone down at all," observed Steve Minsky, vice president of the Citizens Action Project, a Grayslake-based watchdog group. "They (taxing bodies) can find other ways to keep it at the level they need to pay their bills. Unfortunately, that's the way it works." Minsky said that's why the group continues to examine all the property tax processes. "It's very important to challenge your assessment if you feel it is incorrect," he said. Any adjustment may not translate to a corresponding percentage drop in the tax bill, however. Taxpayers have 30 days after receiving their "blue" notice, which lists the value of the property and other information, to appeal. The timing varies by township but taxpayers usually receive it by late summer. "We're gearing up for that," Minsky said.

Helander noted there were "significantly more" appeals last year and the number is expected to double or triple after the notices go out this year. Minsky said county offices associated with the taxing process are "ahead of the curve in many ways" in providing information to citizens. But for reform to occur, "you've really got to deconstruct all the taxing bodies and come up with a solution," as to how much money they need to operate, he added. Helander said the general overview depicted in the video is the first in a series. "We wanted to start with a baby step," she said.

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