Lawsuit filed over commercial property values

County board accused of violating several laws

Latest: 10:34 pm, 6/13/17, Tuesday

COLES COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) -- Some Mattoon property owners are demanding several county board members resign.

Friday, June 9, the owners filed a federal 26-page class action lawsuit on behalf of Mattoon Township commercial and industrial property owners. They claim the county is unfairly taxing them in order to fund the Mattoon School District.

Properties were re-assessed for taxing purposes for the first time since 2001. Owners complained some of their new assessed values didn't make any sense. The new tax rates were applied before the rest of the county could be reassessed.

Tuesday night, property owners accused the county of organizing it all by holding a secret meeting.

"The events that have led us to this situation we find ourselves in are complex and they're very disturbing," James DiNaso told the board.

Coles County officials have already admitted their offices weren't following state law. Commercial and industrial properties are required to be reassessed every four years, but they say it hadn't been done for 15.

Mattoon Township property owners say the sudden reassessment was all part of a plot to rake in more tax dollars for the school district.

"Really, what we're after is the truth, transparency," says property owner Robb Perry.

He and Rex Dukeman filed the lawsuit, claiming being burdened with a higher tax rate than the rest of the county violates their 14th Amendment Equal Protection rights.

"We have to take a stand for what's right," says Dukeman. "If we don't stand up this time, it's going to be getting very bad as far as the business climate in this county."

At the meeting, they pointed out, in February 2015, the board held a meeting with Coles County taxing bodies. The group claims they failed to notify the public about it.

"Certain members of this county board and other county officials deliberately lied, colluded, withheld information, denied FOIA requests, and acted with malfeasance against commercial and industrial property owners of Coles County," said DiNaso.

"For seven months," Perry told the board, "We've remained here trying to figure out what's going on. For seven months, the county board sits here and remains silent."

They remained silent at the meeting. The board didn't respond to many questions beyond "yes" and "no" answers. Board chair Stan Metzger said he had no comment.

The Mattoon schools superintendent says the district won't comment yet either, saying they're still learning about the accusations in the lawsuit.

Update: 11:00 pm, 6/10/17, Saturday

COLES COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) -- Property owners are suing Coles County.

Commercial and industrial property owners are accusing the county of disproportionately taxing them in order to fund the Mattoon School District.

It all started after hundreds complained about the way a recent property reassessment was done. Many said the newly assessed values didn't make any sense.

The lawsuit claims it was all a scheme by the county to find a way to give Mattoon schools a much-needed cash flow, and that the way it was done violates property owners' constitutional rights.

Commercial and industrial properties: in other words, businesses large and small. State law requires them to be reassessed for tax purposes every four years, but Coles County officials say it hasn't happened since 2001.

When asked why, Supervisor of Assessments Karen Biddle didn't have an answer.

Nevertheless, a couple years ago, the office decided to get it done. Biddle says they split the county into four parts, reassessing one at a time. They hired an independent appraiser to do it. Mattoon Township was appraised first. At the end of the year, the new tax rates were applied.

But that took effect before the rest of the county was reassessed. Property owners say that means they've been taxed at a higher rate than everyone else.

Furthermore, documentation shows the independent appraiser was hired by the supervisor's office. That's something the plaintiffs claim the county doesn't have the authority to do under state law. On top of that, other documents call the appraiser's qualifications into question. The county has said he's qualified.

The property owners claim the sudden reassessment was a scheme. A few years back, the Mattoon School Board had to use a Deficit Reduction Plan to make ends meet because it wasn't going to get its property tax revenue in time.

That's where the lawsuit comes in. Property owners claim the county rushed to reassess and roll out the new tax rates. They say the move was so the school district could be properly funded in time. The county is being accused of violating 14th Amendment Equal Protection rights, since the burden of those rates were not applied to the rest of the county at the same time.

The Coles County Board chair could not be reached for comment.

The property owners are asking for more than $900,000 in damages. It's the amount of money they say Mattoon Township commercial and industrial properties are paying for the 2016 tax year.

Original: 11:00 pm, Tuesday, 5/9/17

COLES COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) -- Fireworks erupted at the Coles County Board meeting, Tuesday night.

Dozens accused their elected officials of breaking the law. Several business owners say they might take the county to federal court.

The supervisor of assessments says no commercial property values have been reassessed for about the last 16 years. State law requires it be done every four. The county is working on getting that done now, but property owners say, they way they're going about it, is against the law.

They allege the newly assessed property values don't make any sense, the man who appraised them may have been hired illegally, and through it all, the county is violating their constitutional rights. The supervisor of assessments says she doesn't believe her office, or the county board, did anything wrong.

Coles County Supervisor of Assessments Karen Biddle had little to say when she was asked why no commercial properties have been reassessed for the last 16 years.

"No, not really," answered Biddle. "Nothing I can give you."

Biddle says, after the last three supervisors (for whatever reason) failed to get it done, she took it upon herself.

"I understand why people are upset about it," says Biddle. "Frankly, I don't blame them. But it still needs to be done."

"We have no transparency, no accountability, and we want fairness," says business owner James DiNaso.

He's part of a group of owners claiming the way the new assessment is being done is wrong. Biddle says her office split the county into four parts; assessing one at a time.

They hired an independent appraiser to get it done and they were later hired by the supervisor's office. Mattoon Township was appraised first. At the end of the year, the new tax rates were applied.

"That's the way it's supposed to work, in a quarter quadrennial," says Biddle. "You do the first district, in the first year, then you go to the next district in the next year, and at the end of 4 years, everything has been done."

DiNaso calls that unfair.

"Therefore, Mattoon Township will pay an extra year at higher assessed values than the rest of the county," he says. "That's the first issue."

They say another issue is the way the assessments were done.

"The taxes are outlandish on my property," says Rob Perry. "Some of them as high as 105 - 109 percent of what they were last year."

A Mattoon nursing home, valued at $250,000 last year, is now assessed at more than $1 million: a 325% increase. One furniture store's owner says he'll have to pay more than $2,000 more a year in taxes. And, an empty lot's valuation went up by 400%.

Biddle says a lot can change over 16 years, but the group of owners says not by that much.

"We all understand that taxation is part of life," says Perry. "We have to pay taxes. We're not against paying taxes. I just only want to pay what I'm supposed to pay, not any more, not any less."

The group accuses the appraiser of not having the proper qualifications and being hired illegally. After doing some research into state law, they told county board members they don't have the authority to hire the appraiser as an independent contractor, which documentation shows he originally was.

"I have documentation," DiNaso told the county board. "Thank God for the Freedom of Information Act. Our local government has lied to us and is trying to hoodwink the public."

Biddle says the appraiser's qualifications check out fine and she's not aware of any wrongdoing.

"I do not believe I've done anything wrong," says Biddle. "I believe I've done my job according to statute."

The county board chair could not be reached by phone before the meeting. At the meeting, a few board members told everyone their legal team advised them, at this time, they can't throw out the re-assessment and do it again. 


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