May 14th, 2019 12:00 AM
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.