Those two words tend to be enough to send a shiver up a landowner’s spine, but this is an aspect of government where searching for answers often leads to more questions and, inevitably, frustration.
I recently connected with McHenry County reader Bill S., who is hoping state lawmakers will some day take up the cause of how real estate is taxed. Like almost anyone, I suspect Bill would prefer to pay less to the county each year, but his frustration was more specifically about the taxing process itself.
“The system is based on people’s best guess of the value of a piece of real estate,” Bill wrote. “Pick any home or piece of land, the value of that property can change by the hour, but the real estate taxes remain the same or even go up sometimes. So how does an assessor come up with a value? Many times they just throw out a number and if no one complains, then that’s the number they go with. In every taxing area you’ll find the numbers all over the map, and most of the problem is it’s impossible to come up with a definitive value so they make an intelligent guess and this is how we fund our taxing bodies.”
My county has a fantastic website for researching current and historical data on any parcel, simply by zooming in on a map, but the surplus of data only amplifies the confusion. Compared to other states, Illinois has a staggering number of taxing bodies, and the levy process is more complex than elsewhere. Still, property taxes in all 50 states have one underlying challenge, as Bill noted: compared to most things that can be bought or sold, the value of land and buildings is abstract.
A house is only worth what someone will pay, which only is certain during an actual transaction. It’s the same thing my dad told me about my prized baseball cards. But property needs to be taxed annually, hence the need for assessors, who mix art and science — and perhaps a little influence from the government — to determine figures. Housing stock has almost unfathomable variance, while even identical buildings can age differently and have unique lots.
Illinoisans have been awaiting information from the Property Tax Relief Task Force lawmakers created in 2019. The group had 35 full and subcommittee meetings in five months, but nothing since that December. Folks like Bill would love a sense of clarity or control over how much they owe, and only lawmakers can provide those answers.
I’ve obviously oversimplified a complex issue. Most landowners have experienced tax bill consternation, but ultimately what choice remains but to pay up or move out?
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.