The permit process gives the township assessor information about the project that help value it, as well as signal when the property should come on the tax rolls. When documentation is lacking, or not acted upon, improvements are overlooked.
Property records available online
The Will County supervisor of assessments, treasurer's office, recorder's office and GIS department provide online access to their property records - probably the best access we've seen.
Through the supervisor of assessments website, The Free Press Advocate reviewed property records for each lot in the subdivisions that have been developed since the turn of the century, including Partridge Run, Kahler Ridge, Water's Edge Estates, Deer Creek Estates and FoxTail Commons subdivisions.
The supervisor of assessments website allows searches by property identification number, address, sale date and neighborhood. Once a record is located, a link to the treasurer's website provides the current tax bill, as well as a five-year tax history.
The supervisor's website also links to the county recorder's record; which shows property owners and mortgage information; and the GIS department where maps can be set to show property boundaries, identification numbers and aerial photos back to 1997.
Start your search at the supervisor of assessments website, www.willcountysoa.com
Death and taxes don't necessarily go hand in hand. You might not be able to avoid death, but an in-depth investigation by The Free Press Advocate reveals that some homeowners are slipping under the wire when it comes to paying full value on their property taxes.
Who wouldn't trade their $5,000 property tax bill for a legal $43 tax bill? And who would speak up and let the proper authorities know a mistake has been made?
Two new homes started the newspaper's inquiry into the property tax system. A resident of the neighborhood in which the two new homes were built was protesting their taxes. While comparing property values of nearby homes, the homeowner found that the neighbors were paying tax on empty lots when they had been in their homes for years.
Neighbors paying full price were shelling out $5,000 or more annually to the local taxing districts. The under-assessed neighbors, according to the Will County treasurer's office, were paying just $43.
It's uncommon for a home to be missed in the assessment process - but the state statutes provide for an instant assessment to capture up to three years of tax when a property has been overlooked. Carlotta Marchese has been the Wilmington Township assessor for 15 years, but has only issued an instant assessment twice in that time. She'll be doubling her stats this year.
The assessor receives notice when property is subdivided, or sold, and should also receive building and occupancy permit information. Documentation is a critical part of the property assessment process; if the documentation is flawed, improvements are easily overlooked.
Marchese says she didn't even know some of the homes The Free Press Advocate questioned had been permitted for construction, let alone occupancy - but doesn't blame the owners not being billed properly on anyone but herself.
"I can't give an excuse other than I didn't get any paper on it. How it happened, I don't know," Marchese said. She is working on correcting the records of the properties in question.
The city issued 217 new home permits between 2002 and 2012. Some permits were for multiple-unit constructions, such as duplexes, four-unit townhomes and the Stough senior housing facilities, which include community rooms. At times, builders were permitted to build one unit of a multiple-unit building, so separate permits for those structures show up in the city's record.
Building permits have also been issued with incorrect addresses, or no addresses at all, or to the current address of the owner of record instead of the actual property address.
The city's building department has been in flux in recent years, with little staff stability and changing operating procedures. The staff has attempted to correct the department record-keeping shortfalls, but most records older are still incomplete. However the township assessors; Marchese and Florence Township assessor Dennis Bender and Wesley Township assessor Esther Rodawold, have been informed enough to be able to do their jobs, with a few exceptions:
Property 1 and Property 2 are at the heart of the inquiry. They are on lots that were created by subdivision recorded at the Will County Recorder's office in 2004. But nothing happened on the land until 2007, when the homes were permitted for construction, according to the city of Wilmington's building department record. They were occupied in 2008.
Each property owner received a tax bill for $42.66 last year.
Marchese said both properties will be taxed for 2013, payable in 2014. The owners will also receive an instant assessment for 2012 and 2011.
"What it boils down to is, when people are not paying their fair share, and there's been a mistake made ... when they don't speak up and it gets caught, they gotta pay the price for it," Marchese commented.
The taxing districts lose out on any taxes that should have come due in 2010 and 2009.
Property 3 and Property 4 are four-unit townhomes.
Property 3 is actually two, four-unit buildings that sit side-by-side. Building permits were issued in 2006 and 2007. The property was being divided and deeded as the units were sold, the sales were recorded and the units came on the tax rolls. But the time came when nobody was buying anything, and two of the units, one in each building that are attached to the same property identification number, had been available for lease until sold.
County records on the property are conflicting. The Will County Treasurer's office shows a 2011 property value of $3,976, with a tax bill of $270, while the Supervisor of Assessment's office reflects a market value of nearly $160,000 for the land and building.
The 2010 purchaser of one unit has been billed for tax on both properties, Marchese said, although the property record doesn't recognize that the other unit has been constructed.
Marchese said she just received notice of the division of the two units, which have each been assigned new property identification numbers. According to the supervisor of assessments mapping office, the numbers are assigned the year after the subdivision is recorded.
The bills will be corrected for 2013 taxes, the assessor noted. Since the remaining unit has been rented, it will now be subject to the full property tax. However, unless Marchese documents prior year leases, she cannot go after back taxes.
"They could take me to court and crucify me," she commented.
On Property 4, the city issued permits for two end units of the four-unit complex in 2007, but the only documentation in the permit file for the interior two units is a letter notifying the builder that the building department will allow continued construction on the foundation, exterior walls and roof line using the permits in place. However, interior work was not to be permitted until additional permits were applied for, approved and paid.
Both end units were sold, occupied, and are paying taxes. One of the interior units was sold this year, Marchese said. The purchaser will receive a bill for 2013 taxes in 2014.
The second interior unit is considered unfinished and is subject to a partial assessment, Marchese said, but the owner will still get the developer's relief on the adjoining land. The city could also require the builder to obtain and maintain a building permit.
Property 5 is a multi-unit residential development permitted for construction in 2009. The city building department initially kept detailed records, but the staff could find documentation of nothing after the rough inspections. There is no solid date of occupancy. Marchese will bring it fully on the tax rolls for 2013, but will not go after back taxes. The tax bill on a neighboring similar property is more than $25,000 per year.
Bender has spent hundreds of hours at Wilmington City Hall pouring over building department records for properties in Water's Edge Estates, and on Wildcat and Chesson Courts - the only residential developments in the city limits that are in Florence Township. Bender updated his property records to reflect every in-ground pool, room addition and un-attached garage.
He said the township received the appropriate documentation from the city building department, but faults his predecessorfor not adding the improvements to the tax records. He too found properties where homes had been built, but never taxed.
Property 6 was issued a certificate of occupancy in late 2008. Bender got the house on the tax rolls for 2011, with an instant assessment for the 2010 tax levy year.
Property 7's certificate of occupancy was issued in late 2007. The residence was applied to the tax roll for the 2012 levy year, payable in 2013, with an instant assessment for the 2011 levy year, Bender said.
Sometimes, although rarely, it works the other way. While researching this story, The Free Press Advocate heard from Denise Norris, a Custer Park property owner who couldn't seem to get her new home on the tax rolls. She and her husband lived in the home about three years, and kept asking why their tax bill didn't reflect the value of the house. They documented their effort to correct their tax record.
They learned that the Will County building department recorded the wrong township on their property documents, and finally got the assessor to update the information.
When the house was recognized, the Norrises were not subject to back taxes, because they came forward seeking the correction. They understood how important their tax dollars are to the taxing bodies that receive them.
"We were living here, and part of the community," said Denise. "The biggest thing was the community contribution, we had a fire department ... other districts ... needing more money."
Ultimately, the taxpayer who paid a tax bill that appropriately reflected their property paid their fair share, and the share of the property owners who didn't pay appropriately. What's more, the revenue lost is gone for good.
"All the tax revenue that's not collected is not going to the taxing districts," said Julie Shetina, the assistant deputy treasurer of Will County. "Anything that's not collected, we can't distribute, and there comes a point where it just falls off the face of the earth."
The city of Wilmington has contracted out building department administration to International Codes Consultants Inc. Currently, one copy of each four-part building permit application is set aside for the assessor to pick up at city hall, and Mayor Marty Orr is confident of the department's record keeping efficiency.
Editor's note: The Free Press Advocate looked at hundreds of property tax records to ensure that if there was a house on a lot, the owner was paying taxes on it. We did not attempt to determine if property values were equalized across neighborhoods, and only looked at properties within the city limits. The documented property records discussed have been presented to assessors.