Oak Parkers flood tax assessor office, looking for help

Township says some relief could be on the way with TIF expiring

May 14th, 2019 12:00 AM

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

It was go time last month for Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, who worked with homeowners to help file appeals to lower their property tax bills.

It's a normal part of the work of the assessor, but this year was different, according to ElSaffar, who was flooded with concerns from residents.

It is the third year in the three-year assessment cycle, and at this point, a lot of people who are planning to appeal their tax bills have already done so. 

"Typically, the assessor appeal period in the third year of the cycle is pretty quiet," ElSaffar said in a recent interview. "It's busy, but not crazy busy. But not this year. This year we saw 1,014 appeals this year in this office."

That's about 9 percent of the single-family home owners in Oak Park, ElSaffar said. 

The unexpected demand was so high, ElSaffar had to bring in three additional tax assistants to assist – the office usually gets the job done with ElSaffar and two other people.

He said that 2017 – the first year of the tax appeal cycle – marked the "busiest month of my life" when he met with roughly one out of every five taxpayers in Oak Park in a 30-day period. He said the appeal volume was more than double what he's seen in recent years.

ElSaffar said the high volume of taxpayers looking to appeal their property tax assessments shows the level of worry amongst homeowners.

"We're kind of a barometer of tax concern," he said. "If there are a lot of people coming in, then there is a lot of concern about it." 

ElSaffar suspects that the driver is more about recent spikes in property tax bills, particularly for schools, which account for almost two-thirds of the total tax bill. The village of Oak Park typically accounts for a little more than 16 percent of the bill, while the rest comes from other entities such as the library, park district and township, among others. Those other taxing bodies each represent less than 5 percent of the property tax burden.

That tax burden has ballooned in just a few years, with the village-wide total bill amounting to $170 million paid in 2015 versus the $202 million paid in 2018. The increase in taxes has many telling the assessor that they're considering selling their homes and leaving Oak Park.

"That's a big increase over a couple of years," he said.

It's still uncertain whether new tax money coming from high-rise buildings in and around downtown will ease the burden much. Only two of the four buildings are currently open and occupied, but ElSaffar said the conclusion of the Downtown Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District, which expired last year, could help.

TIF Districts divert new tax money from taxing bodies and into a special fund used to spur economic development.

New tax money from the Downtown TIF won't be realized by taxing bodies until the 2019 taxes are paid in 2020, ElSaffar said. 

"Then they'll have some decisions to make about what to do with this money," he said.

Elected officials at the village and school districts can either use the newly available money to provide tax relief or dedicate it to new spending.

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  • Alex Garcia (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 17th, 2019 4:58 AM

    There are also simply far too many individual taxing bodies in Oak Park and in other Cook County municipalities. This increases the complexity and likelihood of exponential increases in a tax bill over a given period. There needs to be a consolidation of all of these individual taxing districts but fat chance of that in this current local political environment. Meanwhile, homeowners and business owners will continue to pick up and move. That in turn will further reduce the tax base, the life-blood of all of these taxing bodies. When will voters demand that this cycle be disrupted?

  • Les Golden (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 16th, 2019 10:25 AM

    My favorite tax appeal story was the head of the board of a local taxing body who, after pushing through a major tax increase, filed her tax appeal. When it was denied, she moved out of Oak Park, leaving the tax bill to the rest of us. At a local Board of Review meeting, the commissioner described the process. those at the top, appeal. Then a new group is at the top and appeals. After a few cycles, those at the bottom have now gone up to the top and they appeal. It became clear that the system is geared to one issue: Providing lifetime work at the trough for assessors, consultants, lawyers, adjudicators. It's big industry. In fact, after months of FOIA requests, I got hold of the computer program that the assessor uses. Every single parameter is there. A simple regression would provide the AV for every house to the penny. Only damage or improvements would change the parameters. Doing this would a) make the system fair, b) put all these people out of work, forcing them to be productive in society. What's more important? Fairness or keeping your paper shuffling job? Big govt is, again, the source of the problem.

  • Terrence Smith (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 15th, 2019 7:23 PM

    Maybe just maybe the naive voters that approve every referendum no questions asked will challenge the necessity of future efforts from our school districts the next time they have their hand out. That is if they haven't put up the for sale sign yet.

  • Bruce Kline (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 15th, 2019 5:17 PM

    Tom: the candidates for trustee who made our confiscatory taxes a pivotal campaign issue (i.e. Cory Wesley and Bridgett Baron) were NOT elected. Those who played down the tax issue and played up the usual OP liberal progressive litany of identity politics were. So no real surprise why our trustees sit on their collective posteriors on this issue ... they were elected to do so.

  • Tom MacMillan from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 15th, 2019 4:28 PM

    And the trustees respond by doing nothing that involves cutting spending/lowering taxes.

  • Bruce Kline (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 14th, 2019 9:27 PM

    And yet these very folks keep on voting for - or enabling - policies and programs that increase our taxes that they desperately now appeal. This is but one operative definition of insanity.

  • Tad Wefel (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: May 14th, 2019 8:16 PM

    If you drive a car, I'll tax the street. If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat. If you get too cold I'll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.......

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