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PROPERTY TAXES

As Coles County reassessment project reaches halfway point, criticism continues

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Coles Reassessment 06/26/18

Owner Jeremy Yost poses for a photo outside Heritage Woods in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — Coles County's commercial and industrial property reassessment is now past its halfway stage, with property owners in two parts of the county paying taxes based on their properties' new values.

County property taxes paid this year include the newly calculated taxes for businesses in Charleston Township, part of a process that started about 2 1/2 years ago.

Mattoon Township's reassessment was completed in 2016 and applied to last year's tax bills.

But what county officials say was a necessary, overdue move continues to be met with questions, complaints and opposition.

What began with questions about increased property values in the project's early stages evolved into an organized effort that's included legal action against the county.

The lawsuits, at both the county and federal level, are pending and haven't stopped the process, which county officials say has taken place properly.

James DiNaso, opposition group member, said he sees it differently, arguing that objections since the beginning have "fallen on deaf ears."

As a result of the project, some property owners challenged the reassessment's conclusions, with some saying it led to success and some to disappointment.

Jeremy Yost with the ownership group of the Heritage Woods assisted living facility in Charleston, said the company went to the Board of Review, which handles assessment appeals, after the property's value increased "almost 100 percent."

The reassessment placed the value at just more than $1.5 million but the Board of Review reduced it to just more than $522,000, according to county records. Yost described the process that led to the change as "how it's supposed to be."

He said the original value would have doubled the property taxes on Heritage Woods. He said the company used income statistics for other assisted living housing in its appeal.

"We obviously didn't agree with it," he said. "A hit like that financially isn't feasible."

Meanwhile, Kirby Johnson, owner of the Gavina Graphics screen printing company in Charleston, said he found the reassessment of the company's property to be "egregious."

The property's value was first set at just more than $400,000, county records show. The company asked the Board of Review to lower it to around $110,000 but the board changed it to just more than $325,000.

"I wish they were right because then we could sell it for that much," Johnson said.

The effort to apply new values for taxing purposes to the county's commercial and industrial property started in 2015, shortly after current county Supervisor of Assessments Karen Biddle was appointed to her position.

Biddle, who worked in the assessment office for 30 years before becoming supervisor, said her predecessors worked to varying degrees to update the values, a process which is supposed to take place once every four years.

That didn't happen, though, leaving the same taxing values in place since a 2001 countywide reassessment, she said.

"I feel like I'm doing the job I'm supposed to be doing," Biddle said of initiating the project.

'MORE CONSISTENT WITH OPERATIONS' 

The plan adopted divided the county into four sections, with property in one section to be reassessed each year. That's also supposed to be used to set the four-year cycle for future updates.

The Coles County Board, with Biddle's support, hired local appraiser Bob Becker to do the reassessment, approving his $115,000 bid for the project over one with a higher cost.

Becker's hiring and whether that made him a county employee or an independent contractor is one of the main issues for the opposition group, the Concerned Taxpayers of Coles County.

The group's claim is that the county assessment office is legally responsible for setting the values, and assigning the duties to a contractor goes against state law.

It's a contention in a federal lawsuit the group filed against the county and a case filed in county circuit court seeking a halt to the project.

Recent developments on the issue include State's Attorney Brian Bower's informing the county board that additional payments to Becker for work on assessment appeals needed board approval, though that didn't take place.

Also, DiNaso questioned a change in Becker's payment status, from that of an independent contractor to a county employee.

"The county is trying to show he is an employee," DiNaso said during the county's board's July meeting. "There's no way you can deny he's a contractor. I think it's misleading."

Biddle said she made the change because it was "recommended" to her, though she wouldn't say who made the recommendation.

Bower said he made a legal recommendation on the change but cited confidentiality requirements when asked about its origin.

He said Biddle has indicated she considers Becker to be a county employee so making the pay change was "more consistent with operations." It won't affect how the courts consider the lawsuits' contentions, he said.

Also in the federal lawsuit, the Concerned Taxpayers say applying the new values to each of the county's four sections one by one, instead of applying them countywide at the end of the project, increases the tax burden on business owners with the new values.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, though that was based largely on whether federal court, as opposed to state court, is the proper venue for the suit. An appeal is pending.

"We strongly believe that we have a great case," DiNaso said.

During comments to the county board, DiNaso has also mentioned what he thinks are poor economic conditions and the adverse effect any tax increase would have on local business owners.

The county followed guidelines provided by the Illinois Department of Revenue in deciding how to conduct the project, county board Chairman Stan Metzger said. The main thing, he said, is the county addressed an overdue issue.

"Nobody likes property taxes but it needed to be brought to an accurate situation," Metzger said. "If it's not current and accurate as possible, it's not fair to anyone."

The issues remained unsettled.

Bower refused a Concerned Taxpayers' request to take legal action to stop the reassessment, based on the issue of Becker's employment status.

'THEY CONTINUE TO GO DOWN THE SAME PATH' 

While he's said he thinks Becker's hiring was legal, in his written reply to the group, Bower said the matter is up to the courts to decide. He repeated that position after the change in Becker's payment method.

Also, the Illinois Department of Revenue has confirmed that dividing the county into four sections for the reassessment was legal.

However, a department spokesman declined to comment on the legality of hiring a contractor to do the work and on other issues related to the reassessment.

Biddle said hiring Becker was in part because of time constraints for her office staff. She also said there's precedent for the move, as Coles County did it for the 2001 reassessment and other counties have done it as well.

Douglas County, for example, hired a company to do a reassessment of that county's large industrial property in 2016.

There were plans, at least at one point, to use the same method for commercial property, also. The reassessment there is at "a standstill" for now, Douglas County assessment office Chief Deputy Cindy Baer said recently.

Baer said she didn't want to elaborate on the situation. However, the Douglas County Board in March fired then-Supervisor Dan Stebbins, citing work absences, the Champaign News-Gazette newspaper reported.

Coles County officials' stance and the continuing of the reassessment project show that they're ignoring the Concerned Taxpayers' contentions and objections, DiNaso said.

"They continue to go down the same path," he said.

Biddle said there was no "malice" behind the project, which she said is an effort to be "fair and equal." The assessments for residential property were maintained, so the other properties need to be addressed as well, she said.

"I feel like I owe it to the taxpayers to get this done," Biddle said. "What's unfortunate is that it wasn't done until now."


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