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Updated: Tuesday, 10 Apr 2012, 9:20 PM EDT
Published : Tuesday, 10 Apr 2012, 9:20 PM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Property tax bills are being mailed this week in counties across Indiana. But I-Team 8 found thousands of Marion County homeowners are still fighting the bills they got five years ago.
Marion County has seen a massive backlog of appeals grow since 2006, when all 360,000 parcels of land in the county were reassessed under orders from the state. Since then, the county assessor’s office reports more than 71,000 appeals have been filed. By 2010, the county reported more than 32,000 of them still had not been processed.
I-Team 8 found that number has barely budged in the years since.
For homeowners like Brian Clouse, those years have been filled with frustration. He and his wife bought their dream home in Wayne Township five years ago. It wasn’t long after that their tax troubles began.
“In 2008, we got our new assessment on our property,” he said. “And we were a little shocked, especially with the purchase price. The valuation of the assessment and the appraisal did not even come close.”
Like 11,937 other property owners that year, he filed an appeal, thinking what he saw as a "clear discrepancy" on his assessment would quickly be cleared up.
“I thought maybe six-eight months we'd hear something. I never dreamed in my wildest imagination it would take four years to even get to my paperwork,” he said.
But it has. And his appeal still hasn't been resolved.
“I started checking on this on a monthly basis, and was told initially: ‘We'll get to it, we'll get to it.’ Finally, a year went by, and I found out this huge backlog existed. Now, all they can tell me is that they’re working their way through the oldest ones first,” Clouse said.
There’s a lot to work through. As of early April 2012, the Marion County assessor’s office listed 29,644 active appeals that had not been resolved. More than half of them were filed before Clouse filed his in 2008.
“What the heck have you been doing? You're a government official. Are you that incompetent? You're basically holding taxpayer money hostage for years and years and years,” Clouse said.
Asked for his response to those questions, Marion County Auditor Joseph O’Connor nodded his head.
“I empathize with their impatience,” he said. “It's justified impatience, because we are running a backlog.”
Asked how long it might take to clear the backlog, O’Connor thought for a moment.
“I wouldn't want to say, ‘This is when we'll get to it,’ because obviously people are going to say, ‘I've been in the hopper now for months and still haven't heard anything.’ But, we are triaging the appeals. If there's evidence submitted, we're coding them in the system. And there may be a situation where it's just easy enough, glaring us in the face, that we can go ahead and get the appeal fixed or corrected, and that sort of saves it from sitting in the hopper for years to come,” O’Connor said.
All successful appeals, he added, will come with a 4 percent interest payment.
Still, the assessor’s office said it was making progress until last year, when 15,000 new appeals began rolling in.
“We were whittling the number down to a sustainable number until that 15,000 hit,” O’Connor said. “We didn't really have the green light to start working on these appeals until about August of 2008. Since then, we've closed just over 41,000 appeals. So, we're moving at a pace that I feel is sort of fast enough to catch up. But the bottom line is we have 360,000 parcels. Even if you look at industry standards of 2 percent to 3 percent appealed, you're still looking at 7,000-10,000 [parcels appealed] a year.”
Still, even with the additional appeals, O’Connor said he is confident his office is gaining ground.
“I don't think we're in a situation where it's years now. I feel like we've got it under control where we can get to it within months,” he said.
Asked if that meant he could clear the backlog of 29,000-plus this year, O’Connor shook his head.
“No,” he said. “But, we're looking now on being better at responding to the appeals. I want people to work fast on appeals. But let's just let people know that we have their appeal, that it's not sitting on a desk or in the trash, and that we haven't lost their appeal. I want to restore some trust and confidence in the office. We’ve got all hands on deck.”
But those hands have been reduced, of late. The assessor’s office lost 10 positions due to budget cuts through attrition in the last 12 months, O’Connor said. Processing appeals takes both time and personnel.
Marc Lotter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Ballard said he empathized with frustrated taxpayers, but said the mayor’s spending priorities remain on public safety. Requests for additional appropriations, he said, should rest with the assessor, since his is a “separately elected office.”
All of the promises have done little to settle the nerves of those like Clouse.
“I feel like that's political
double-speak,” he said. “This is unacceptable progress. And the citizens of this county should be appalled. Show us at least some semblance that you are working to solve this problem. You need to be accountable. And that accountability includes getting the appropriate staff to handle these appeals in an appropriate manner.”
Asked if he had made requests for additional staff, O’Connor nodded again.
“We have worked well with [the City-County Council and mayor’s office], but these are budgeting [realities],” he said.
Still, with a statewide reassessment scheduled for 2013, O’Connor sees more strife around the bend.
“Every year when the appeal window opens, we are going to see another 2 percent to 5 percent of them being appeals coming through the door. And what that represents in Marion County is anywhere from 7,000-18,000 new appeals. With the reassessment, we could expect that to be on the high end of 5 percent, or 18,000 new appeals,” he said.
Asked if that meant the problem would get worse before it gets better, he paused for a moment.
“We could be at a tipping point where, if it gets worse, you are going to start to see our service, or our ability to do sustainable service hurt,” O’Connor said.
Clouse, meanwhile, found out this week that the assessment on his home will jump again this year by another $50,000.
“There have been no improvements made to this home other than normal maintenance. We’ll be appealing again,” he said.
When those appeals might be heard, however, remains a mystery.
“We don't expect to see relief until 2016-2017,” he said, with a sigh. “Citizens are left powerless to do anything about this within the law. I feel helpless.”
I-Team 8 contacted the assessors of surrounding central Indiana counties and found none reporting backlogs of property tax appeals longer than two years.
No central Indiana county reported a backlog of more than 1,000 active appeal cases, though Lake County in northern Indiana reported a backlog of about 6,000 appeals dating back to 2006. Nearby LaPorte County just mailed 2007-payable-2008 property tax bills in February 2012, following years of delays through contested property reassessment.
The Marion County Assessor’s office reported average home assessments were down in 2011 from the previous year, by just under 1 percent.