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Our view: Mess that is assessments

It’s property tax appeal season.

Years ago, that wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy. But as property values plummeted yet tax bills continued to soar, appeal season has turned into the NFL of citizen participation.

Depending on when your township publishes your assessments, it’s either already too late or your within or approaching your 30-day window to appeal the property tax assessment that determines your bill. According to recent results, there’s a very good chance that you can get your assessment lowered if you go ahead and appeal.

If the past few years are any indication, and we can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be, we expect more than 9,000 appeals to be filed on behalf of property owners this year. There were 8,893 assessment appeals last year for this year’s property tax bills, up 51 percent from 2010. And the 5,885 appeals filed that year were up 40 percent from 2009.

The reason for the dramatic increase in appeals is a combination of factors that has led to a frustrating reality for taxpayers who are paying more in taxes and seeing their home values continue to decline.

There’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue as tax cap laws, initially passed in the early 1990s during a housing boom, continue to work for local government units and against property owners.

The law was designed to keep local governments from gouging taxpayers as home values rose, but guaranteed those governments to at least be able to capture increases at the rate of inflation, which will be 3 percent next year.

So appealing one’s assessment has become one of few recourses that homeowners have to at least slow their own rising tax bills, But as more and more appeal their tax bills successfully, the remaining tax burden is just spread among the taxpayers who did not appeal.

The obvious question from this recent phenomenon is this: If most of these appeals are successful, doesn’t that mean that the property assessments by township assessors aren’t being done correctly in the first place?

Instead of fielding thousands of appeals that are burdensome for homeowners and government alike, wouldn’t it make much more sense if the initial assessments were done accurately?

In addition to fixing the tax cap problem at the state legislative level, it’s time to rethink the way we handle assessments. We support of a countywide assessment system.

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