The Gomez family standing in front of their Elgin home / Photo courtesy of Olga Gomez
When Olga and Enrique Lopez decided to downsize their home two years ago, they opted for a newly constructed ranch house in Highland Woods, a subdivision on the far west side of Elgin.
They said they were told by their developer to budget 3 percent of the purchase price for property taxes, but when their first tax bill arrived, the $11,400 due was about $2,500 higher than their original estimate. It was also about $4,000 higher than the taxes on their last home, which was a larger property located in another part of Elgin.
“I nearly had a heart attack because it was way over what we expected,” said Olga Lopez, who ultimately paid $10,700 after an exemption was applied.
The numbers didn’t seem to add up, so Olga Lopez dug a little deeper and discovered that the owners of a nearby property – the same house that the couple visited and chose as a model for their floor plan – were only paying $7,500 in property taxes.
“It was the same house, same builder, same school district,” Lopez said.
The tax rate was 11.9 percent for the Lopez residence, which the couple bought for $296,000 in 2012, and 12 percent for the other property, which sold for $306,000 in 2010, public records show. Both also had homeowner exemptions.
But there was at least one major difference between properties: the assessor.
Plato Township Assessor Janet Roush / Plato Township
Though less than two miles apart, the Lopez home falls within the boundaries of Plato Township, which means the assessor is Janet Roush. The other house is part of Elgin Township; its assessor is Steven Surnicki. Both townships are located in Kane County.
The assessor’s job is to evaluate properties and determine a home’s “assessed value,” which is one third of its estimated market value. (This goes for all counties in Illinois except Cook, which utilizes a different system.) After “equalization factors” are applied to make valuations more uniform, property taxes are then calculated by multiplying the equalized assessed value by the tax rate.
In other words, how the assessor values your home plays a big role in how much you pay in property taxes. That’s why many critics of the state’s complicated property tax system call the process inherently subjective and unfair.
Olga Lopez, for one, wants to know why there are inconsistencies among the properties she’s researched.
“Whatever method she [the assessor] is using, I would think it should be standard throughout the state,” Olga Lopez said. “But . . . clearly it is not if they are coming up with such different numbers.”
While the numbers may vary, Roush said that doesn’t mean the valuations are wrong. She said she bases her assessments off the prices of home sales over the past three years, so certain neighborhoods may be close in proximity but differ in sales.
“I am side by side with Elgin [Township] and yet they are completely different than Plato,” Roush said. “Every area has to be looked at and treated very, very differently.”
The Lopez family, for example, “looked at a model that may be very similar to theirs, but you put that house in another area and that price could definitely go up,” she said.
But Olga Lopez is not the only frustrated homeowner in Plato Township. Dozens of others in her northwest suburban neighborhood have banded together in recent months over similar property tax issues, and a Facebook page on this topic now has more than 400 members. Many residents believe their homes are being over assessed and have taken their complaints to the City of Elgin, which is currently investigating the matter.
Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said it’s too soon to say whether or not there’s a problem. But he has started collecting data from both Elgin Township and Plato Township and said there’s “some indication” of a disparity between the two.
“There needs to be an explanation as to why there is such a difference between the two,” Stegall said. “It’s a theory, that there seems to be disproportionate taxes. . . . If that is the case, then the City of Elgin would work with [the assessors] to encourage a process that is equitable and fair.”
Roush said assessments in Highland Woods are likely higher compared to other developments because the community has a number of amenities, including a clubhouse and water park, that make it more desirable and, thereby, a more expensive place to live.
“In their particular area, houses are selling higher than other areas and they also have amenities that other areas don’t have,” Roush said.
“Unfortunately it’s a lot more complicated than what people want it to be,” she added, speaking on the assessment process. “They want it to be simple, and simple doesn’t always work out the best. I am just trying to maintain equality within my own township just as they are trying to maintain equality in Elgin Township, and we each have our own challenges.”
She also noted that there are checks and balances in place (via the equalization factors) that would kick in should one particular area ever get assessed disproportionately.
Homeowners, of course, can also appeal their assessments by filing complaints with the county’s board of review – although this could be a daunting task for many.
In 2014, there were 220 assessment complaints from Elgin Township out of 28,712 residential parcels, which equates to a 0.77 percent complaint rate, according to the Kane County Assessment Office. Plato Township had a 1.69 percent complaint rate in 2014 with 36 complaints out of 2,129 residential parcels.
Highland Woods, in particular, accounted for 12 of the 36 complaints filed in Plato Township. The subdivision has 256 residential parcels.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9027.