The Lake County Board is reviewing a proposal that would eliminate township assessor offices in favor of a centralized system
— a model backers say would save taxpayers $4.4 million annually while boosting accuracy of assessments.
Board Member Steven Mandel of Highland Park said an ongoing study of the concept could result in it being put to a referendum in November 2016, or just ahead of assessor elections in early 2017.
By Dan Moran Lake County News-Sun May 6, 2015 Steven Mandel photo by Denys Becksten, News-Sun
“About two years ago, I asked our chief assessor here if Lake County has the best practice of assessment system or if there were efficiencies to be had. He told me we did not have the best practice,” Mandel said Wednesday. “My big picture is to see if we can create better efficiencies in government to reduce taxation. When I look at everything, this is how I look at it — how can we be more efficient, how can we consolidate, how can we provide services and create a sustainable model of government?”
Mandel said he’s found centralized systems to be the best practice.
“There are more than 6,000 governmental entities in Illinois, and we have a lot of old-fashioned practices,” he said. “I would say that having individual townships do assessments when the county does assessments is an old-fashioned practice.”
Lake Villa Township Assessor Jeffrey Lee, who heads an association of county assessors, said he and his colleagues “are not actively opposing (the concept), but we’re looking at the figures and the realities of the situation.
“We’ve heard them talk about saving more than $4 million, but we’re trying to figure out where these numbers are coming from. Are those realistic numbers?” Lee said, adding that there’s a possibility “it wasn’t thought through thoroughly, because all of the parties weren’t involved” in crunching the numbers.
According to a 26-page draft report prepared for the Lake County Board’s Revenue, Records and Legislation Committee and reviewed by its members earlier this spring, the total estimated expenses for the county’s 18 assessor offices comes to $8.2 million, while the Lake County Assessment Office is budgeted at $2 million for the 2015 fiscal year.
The estimated cost of a centralized system was pegged at $5.8 million, which would include 62 employees compared to the 86 currently employed by township assessors plus 18 at the county office.
The report states that, along with the cost savings, residents “would experience a more uniform approach and consistent property assessments as opposed to the current decentralized format of 18 townships with their own methodology and approach. Customers can look to one entity for their inquiries and information.”
On the other hand, the report adds that the move to a centralized system would not come without logistical hurdles that include undetermined new costs.
“Challenges of such a scenario include the possibility of taxpayer access being limited by fewer locations, the loss of local control and a lack of valuable local knowledge in the assessment process,” the report states. “Challenges such as these can be mitigated through increased collaboration. Additionally, establishing satellite locations may eliminate these obstacles but these solutions also add costs that have not been factored into this analysis.”
In any event, the report notes that “a centralized assessment process at Lake County would not be feasible without the transfer of these funding sources from the townships” to cover the operating costs, including salaries.
Both Mandel and Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said all of the issues raised by the study will be discussed with township officials as the evaluation moves forward.
“Our plan now is that we want this to be an inclusive and open process,” Mandel said. “We want to work with our supervisors and township assessors and talk to them and run through the facts, understand the data and be sure that we have everybody’s opinion before we go back to committee and see what this direction should be.”
Lawlor stressed that “we’re at the very beginning stages” of studying the issue, which he pointed out has also been the focus of recent legislation in Springfield.
“We really need to engage with our shareholders. It’s really not right for us to do anything without talking to our assessors, talking to our supervisors,” Lawlor said. “It’s really important to get everyone to the table. There are concerns, and there’s probably information we don’t have right now.”
Having learned about the county’s study within the past few weeks, Lee admitted that there is some trepidation in the air among his fellow assessors.
“You feel like you’re being pushed out a little bit. It’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I might lose my job,'” he said. “But the reality is they’re still going to need people to do assessment functions (and) high-end evaluators doing professional work.”
Lee added that his read on the matter is that state legislation would have to take the lead in any event, so “it’s a difficult situation, and it’s not as easy as just saying, ‘We’re going to eliminate the assessor’s position.'”
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