URBANA -- Saying federal courts shouldn't address an issue that can be settled in state court, a judge dismissed a lawsuit a group filed against Coles County for its handling of a reassessment project.
U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce made the ruling Monday on the suit that sought an end to the reassessment project and a refund of what the opponents said were excessive taxes they paid because of it.
The group's attorney indicated on Tuesday that an appeal is likely.
In the ruling, Bruce said federal courts are prohibited from making orders on state law tax issues if there's a "plain, speedy and efficient remedy" available in state court.
The opposition group, the Concerned Taxpayers of Coles County, will likely appeal the decision, according to attorney Erick Kaardal, who filed the suit on the group's behalf.
Kaardal said he and the group members were "profoundly disappointed" with Bruce's ruling. He said a state court can't provide an "adequate remedy," namely an injunction halting the project, so "the door is open" for federal court action.
Coles County Board Chairman Stan Metzger said he welcomed the federal court's move and defended the reassessment project as an attempt to get property assessments to their correct level.
"This is good news for the county and for the taxpayers of Coles County," he said.
While commercial and industrial property hadn't been reassessed since 2001, residential property owners have been paying property taxes based on updated assessment figures, Metzger noted.
The lawsuit resulted from a year of questions, concerns and complaints about the reassessment of the county's commercial and industrial property.
It began a year ago when the first of the new assessment figures were released and evolved into a more organized opposition with the filing of the suit earlier this year.
One of the lawsuit's main contentions addressed how the project divided the county into four sections, with business property in Mattoon Township reassessed first.
The suit claimed that violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection provisions.
Property owners in Mattoon Township paid more in taxes than those in the rest of the county -- the lawsuit listed the total increase as $930,000 -- until the other areas were reassessed, it said.
But Bruce agreed with contentions in the motion to dismiss the lawsuit from attorneys who represented the county.
The motion and Bruce's ruling relied heavily on a legal doctrine that says federal courts should refrain from taking on cases over which another court also has authority.
Bruce noted that legal precedents stated that the legal doctrine, called "comity," has "particular force" on issues of state tax laws. It's important for governments that rely on local tax sources to "be interfered with as little as possible," he said.
The named plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Robb Perry and Rex Dukeman, two Mattoon Township business owners who are part of the Concerned Taxpayers group. Both filed on Monday as candidates for the county board in next year's election.
The county continued with the reassessment project, which started in 2015, while the lawsuit was pending.
The reassessment of commercial and industrial property in Charleston Township was recently completed and the rest of the county will follow during the next two years, according to county Supervisor of Assessments Karen Biddle.
Her office plans to mail notices of property values to property owners on Thursday, Biddle said. A legal notice is also scheduled to be published in the Journal Gazette/Times-Courier the same day, she said.
The project's opponents have addressed the county board at each of its monthly meetings since December of last year, which was shortly after Mattoon Township property owners received notices of their new property values.
The group has also raised other issues, including whether it was proper to use an independent appraiser, instead of assessment office workers, to do the work.