Late in 2017 and into early 2018 year, the Lake County Assessors’ Association which consists of local township assessors, has been busy advancing press releases in the local news media. The Assessors have tried to portray the Lake County Assessment Officer as a villain who does not allow them to do the job they were elected to do. This is not the case. The Lake County Assessment Officer has exercised his duties as defined by law and the beckoning of the Lake County Board. The following paper sums up the situation.
Illinois has the second highest property taxes and the largest number of government units in the nation. The tax rate in Lake County Illinois is one of the highest in the nation. In 2016, the predominant tax rate on assessed value of a property parcel in Lake County ranged from 5.26 to 19.97%. This is equivalent to an effective tax rate of 1.75% to 6.66%, with the highest rates being in the lower income communities. In addition, a 2017 US News report ranked Illinois 44th in the nation for economic development.
In March 2014, a member of the Lake County Board, Steven Mandel, requested the Chief County Assessment Office (CCAO) evaluate potential improvements to increase the quality of Property Valuation in Lake County. The Assessment Office conducted a study evaluating eight counties in the US that were recognized by the International Association of Assessing Officials with the “Certificate of Excellence in Assessment Administration”. One of the key findings of the study was that all eight counties surveyed had a centralized approach to assessments. The assessment work was controlled from a central office by a single set of assessment professionals.
The draft study admittedly made some assumptions and estimated savings to the taxpayers in the amount of $4.4 million. The model provided suggestions for a consolidated and centralized Lake County assessment system. Steve Mandel released the findings to the Chicago Tribune on May 6, 2015, stating the goal should be “to see if we can create better efficiencies in government to reduce taxation.”
Referring to the Tribune publication, the president of the Lake County Township Assessors Association (LCAA) was quoted as saying that the group was “not actively opposing (the concept), but we’re looking at the figures and the realities of the situation”. The LCAA reviewed the report and provided a draft response to the County in April 2017, nearly two years later.
The draft response mostly criticized the math and methodology of the LCAO draft report. It further commented on the author’s potential bias and lack of leadership but did not offer any ideas on efficiencies or quality improvements.
While the Township Assessors were preparing the draft response, a small sub-group was preparing for litigation against the County. In October of 2016, the Lake County Assessors Association (LCAA) and five Township Assessors (Grant, Ela, Cuba, Libertyville, and Vernon Townships) filed suit in the United States District Court for Northern Illinois against the Chief County Assessment Official of Lake County, the Lake County Board of Review, the Lake County Treasurer, as well as several individual members of the Board of Review.
The lawsuit claimed that the County Assessment Officer, Martin Paulson, was violating the Township Assessors ability to perform their functions of elected office. The lawsuit stated, “Paulson is doing this because he believes that the functions of the Township Assessor should be abolished and consolidated into his office.”
In April 2017, the same month the draft response from the Township Assessors was released, the lawsuit was dismissed due to lack of evidence of any harm to the Township Assessors and lack of evidence that any laws were broken. In addition, the motion stated that Paulson was performing his duties as defined by the legal statutes.
In November of 2017, a second lawsuit was initiated by the Lake County Assessors Association and seven Township Assessors in the 19th Judicial Circuit in Lake County. The legal firm, Ancel, Glink et al, is representing the Townships Assessors in this lawsuit. The attorneys of Ancel, Glink had authored the “Township Officials of Illinois, Laws and Duties Handbook”.
The Township Officials of Illinois (TOI) is a 501 (C-4) organization that provides education programs for elected officials, has a legislative committee and acts as contracted lobbyist to influence legislative matters related to Township Government. In addition, TOI has a risk management arm, Township of Illinois Risk Management Association (TOIRMA). TOIRMA provides liability insurance to most of the 1400 Townships and 300 Multi-Township organizations.
The actions taken by 7 of the 18 Lake County Assessors and their 501 (C-4) Lake County Assessors Association speak volumes on how property tax receipts are spent. The taxpayer is required to pay a dollar share to the Township. The Township Assessor’s Office pays from its funds dues to the Lake County Assessors Association. The 7 townships involved in the suit also used taxpayer dollars in the amount of $38,138 toward the retention of the law firm and other legal fees to sue the County Assessment Officer, the County and the County Board of Review. The County must provide defense for its employees and body of government. All this is an expense to the Lake County taxpayer to avoid any consideration to consolidate assessment services to save the county taxpayers 4 million dollars a year in tax receipts.
The County Board Members must also bear some of the responsibility for the actions taken by the Township Assessors Association and seven of its members. Soon after the draft study was shared with all County Board Members, sessions were held at the County with Township Assessors, the County Board Chairman and another Board Member to discuss the study. Despite those hearings on the matter, the County Board deliberately ignored any suggestions to reform its present system of property taxation.
It is not known and will be most difficult to find out if or how much TOI money has been contributed to the Lake County Assessors Association and the Township Assessor Members in pursuit of the lawsuit actions. Lawsuits are expensive. The Assessors Association and its litigious Members do not seem to care about the expense liability. They have the taxpayer dollar working for them.
Most of the Lake County Assessors are receiving large monthly checks and full benefits for managing the many Deputy Assessors hired to do the job they were elected to do. Many Deputy Assessors earn salaries and benefits equal to or higher than those received for the same type work by individuals in other government or private industry. Some elected Assessors have full-time employment in the non-government sectors. The Deputy Assessors mostly duplicate the work done by the Lake County Assessment Officer’s staff.
It is time for the County Board and its Chairman to take responsible and appropriate action. Legislation needs to put forth at the County level. Let the voters decide through referendum whether they want to continue to pay property taxes to the Township Assessors. Enough is enough.
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