County Treasurer Pays On Time and In Full

I went to the Urbana School Board meeting last night regarding the future of Washington Early Childhood.  Of course, no school board meeting in the state happens these days without some discussion of payments from the State of Illinois.  Superintendent Preston Williams informed the group that the State of Illinois was $4.8 million behind in payments to the district.

A little relief is in sight for the school district, and every other taxing body in the County.  The first distribution of property tax payments should hit their bank accounts tomorrow.  For Urbana schools that is a payment of $4.6 million which represents about 17% of what they’ll end up receiving from property tax revenues.

It bears noting that while the state plays games with tax dollars and withholds tax revenues due to local governments, the County is paying on time and in full.  Once a month, the Treasurer makes  a distribution of all that has been collected to that point.

The Township Assessors, Supervisor of Assessments Office, Board of Review, County Clerk, and County Treasurer work as a team to get tax bills out by May 1st each year.  Because of the great work of this team, we’re able to mitigate the disaster that we face from a state that fails to meet their obligations.

County Is Broke, Bill Is on the Way

Today, the County’s General Corp fund has a balance of $35,000.  To put that in perspective, next week’s payroll will be about $750,000.  That doesn’t include paying the various bills that come up each week.  That measly fund balance is possible only because we’ve actually borrowed $3.3 million from other County funds.

In the good news/bad news category, the County sent out their property tax bills today.  So expect it in your mailbox tomorrow or Monday.  The revenue for the County General Corp fund from property taxes is about $6.8 million.   That will allow the County to essentially tread water for the next few months.

Champaign County is one of the few counties in the state to get their tax bills out on time.  It’s a combined and highly cooperative effort between township assessors, the Supervisor of Assessments, our office, the County Treasurer, and the County’s IT department that makes that happen.

Tax Bills Are Coming

Good news for local governments. But I guess bad news for your personal cash flow. Property tax bills are set to go out on May 2nd. Champaign County is one of just 5 or 6 counties to get their bills out by the statutory date in the beginning of May. Great work between my office, the Supervisor of Assessments, the Board of Review, all local assessors and the County Treasurer makes this possible.

It can’t come at a better time as this will give a needed cash infusion to Champaign County which is running on empty at this time. The General Corporate fund should see about a million dollars by the end of May and the nursing home fund should get about $150,000.

You’ve got until June 2nd to pay your bill.

You can look up your bill right now at the County Treasurer’s website.

Privacy and County Tax Records

We had an interesting discussion at the County Board Policy Committee meeting on December 7th about the policy of the Supervisor of Assessments regarding searching on-line for the owners of real estate in the county.

Here is a brief time line regarding this issue. About five years ago we added a feature to the County Clerk website that allowed people to search for tax amounts and rates of every parcel in the county. These searches could be done either by property identification number (PIN) or by address. We routinely would get a hundred hits a day on this page from bankers, Realtors, and homeowners. Our tax department saw a dramatic drop in the number of phone calls they received from people wanting tax rates. A few people (under 10) over the last five years have requested that we have a search by name. However, most people did not have a problem with the lack of a name search because they always had at least the address of the parcel that they were looking for.

About two years ago the county technology staff developed a program to allow people to access tax information on the treasurer’s website. This search hit on more dynamic data and informed the voter of not just the property tax amount and rate, but also how much had been paid on the tax bill. Once again, the Treasurer allowed for searches by PIN or address, but not by name. This year, we decided to stop creating our own database and direct people instead to the Treasurer’s database which is more dynamic and has more functionality.

The Supervisor of Assessments asked both me and the County Treasurer to modify our database search engines to allow for name searches. We both rejected this option. I’ll explain my reasons, which I believe closely mirror those of the Treasurer.

All this information is a public record. There is no question about that and neither the Treasurer nor I have a problem with disseminating the information. The Treasurer has a terminal in his office for people to search tax records. If someone comes into his office to request information about a property owner, the Treasurer would give it out without hesitation. The same goes with requests in this office. What we don’t want is to make this information easily accessible to people who may not have the best purposes in mind. For that reason, requests to search tax information by name must come by phone, in person, or through the mail. From my standpoint, this provides an extra layer of security by forcing requestors to shed at least some of their anonymity.

Why should citizens care about this? Very simply, some people have good reasons for wanting their address kept private. Police officers, judges, and other law enforcement officials often have unlisted phone numbers to prevent harassment. Women who have orders of protection would like to prevent the subject of that order from finding out where they live. Seniors who are receiving tax relief because of their income level would like that information to be more private. Granted, all this information is available by coming to our offices, but to make it easy to get I believe is unwise.

There have been examples in this country of where people have gotten personal information about another individual and used it to track them down. Additionally there are thousands of examples of identity theft out there which can be facilitated by too much information being too easily accessed.

I spoke in opposition to allowing internet searches of tax information by name at the Policy Committee. When I raised the fact that your Illinois Driver’s license information is not available on line, one Board Member claimed that the information was not public record. As you can see from the Rules and Regulations of the Secretary of State, your driver’s license is public record (except for personal information such as height and weight). You can also see here that the Secretary of State makes the information available, but puts some restrictions on it such as requiring requestors to be identified and informing the person whose information is being requested.

I don’t advocate using the rules of the Secretary of State on our internet site. I only bring this up to demonstrate that other government agencies put reasonable restrictions on the dissemination of personal information. For Champaign County to do this is not unreasonable.

One board member also suggested something along the line of how times have changed and this is the world we now live in. I rebuke that kind of philosophy quite frankly. We can either allow technology to control our lives, or we can control technology. To suggest that we have to accede to every new advance in technology is to become a slave to that technology. Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean that we MUST do it.

These points were brought up at the Policy Committee meeting but they appeared to have little impact on either the Supervisor of Assessments or the attending County Board Members. This issue is out of my hands, and in some ways is out of the hands of the County Board as the Supervisor of Assessments has some measure of control over the operations of his office. Nevertheless, I believe that people who are concerned about this issue should contact the Supervisor of Assessments or their County Board Members to express their views.

Tax Caps (A Primer)

There have been some interesting local discussions about tax caps recently. I have also received a number of calls asking for an explanation of how tax caps work. Here’s a brief primer.

Tax caps is the common name for the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law. It was passed by the Illinois legislature in 1991 as a mandatory part of the tax code for the five county area that borders Cook County. In 1995, PTELL was extended to Cook County and in 1996 it was extended to downstate counties subject to referendum. Champaign County passed property tax caps in November, 1996.

PTELL’s intent is to limit the growth of property taxes to the rate of inflation.

PTELL does not directly address tax rates or tax assessments. Instead, it addresses the overall extension amount that any taxing district gets. The extension is the tax rate multiplied by the assessed value. In addressing rising property taxes, the state legislature realized that capping either tax rates or assessed value increases would do nothing to limit the overall growth in property taxes. Capping increases in the extensions does.

Because the cap is on the overall extension, it is possible that a property owner’s tax could go up more or less than the rate of inflation. Over time, a person’s overall property tax bill should generally match the rate of inflation, unless the property owner does something to increase the value of their property or if a referendum is passed that increases the tax rate.

There are two exceptions to tax caps in Champaign County.

First, the home rule taxing districts of the City of Champaign, the City of Urbana, and the Village of Rantoul are not covered by tax caps.

Second, a taxing district which has territory in another county is not covered by tax caps. In future years, it is possible that those territories would be covered by tax caps if the following happens. First, all the counties in which the district has territory have voted on tax caps (but not necessarily passed tax caps). Second, at least half of the assessed value of the taxing district is located in counties which have tax passed tax caps.

For example, the Mahomet Seymour School district is not covered by tax caps because part of the district is in Piatt County. The Piatt County portion of the district contains just .02% of the EAV of the Mahomet Seymour School District, but it’s enough to prevent tax caps from taking effect. However, if Piatt County ever votes on tax caps Mahomet Seymour School District will then be subject to tax caps, even if the tax cap referendum in Piatt County fails.

Our office has the responsibility for enforcing PTELL. Each year, prior to the final extension of property taxes, we compute the maximum rate allowed under PTELL. We then inform the districts and adjust the tax rates accordingly.

Calculating just how great the savings are under PTELL is difficult. There are various models that could be used, but each requires that assumptions are made about what the taxing districts would do in the absence of tax caps. However, it is indisputable that tax rates have generally dropped for those districts under PTELL (in the absence of referenda), and that at least some of that decrease is from tax caps.