Gifford officials see worrying signs: 'For sale'
GIFFORD — There's property-tax anxiety in Gifford — not for next year, but for future years, when the village confronts the possibility that some property will remain empty and unimproved.
Last month's devastating tornado demolished an estimated 70 homes, perhaps more, in the village and the surrounding area.
Not only does that mean 70 families without their homes, but longer term, it also means the loss of assessed valuation in the village and a greater property-tax burden on those remaining.
"As of Monday," said Rod Grimsley, superintendent of the Gifford Grade School district, "there were 12 lots for sale in Gifford and four or five more pending. Some parents with kids at school haven't made up their minds (about rebuilding) yet. That concerns me."
The effect on next year's property-tax payments to the school district and other taxing districts in northeastern Champaign County will be negligible. After that, though, it's a different story.
Champaign County Supervisor of Assessments Stan Jenkins said he and his deputy, Joe Meents, spent two evenings in Gifford last week with board of review members to help property owners apply for a prorated abatement of their property taxes to be paid next spring. Because the tornado happened late in the year, it means property owners who apply will get about 12 percent taken off of what would have been their property-tax bill.
"In the whole scheme of things it's not a whole lot, but it will help," Jenkins said.
He said between 140 and 150 property owners in Compromise, Rantoul and Kerr townships sought the tax break.
The various taxing districts in the area will lose a total of about $20,000 next year, Jenkins estimated.
Longer term, Champaign County officials think they have a plan that would keep taxing districts from enduring a property-tax hit in the coming years.
"I think we're going to handle this as a change in assessment versus an abatement," Jenkins said. "With a change in assessment, we just change the equalized assessed value for the jurisdiction. They can make it up with the tax rate."
"Basically, what they're going to do is that the value of the district — let's say it's the fire district — their equalized assessed valuation will go down, but they'll still get the same or a little bit more because the (tax) rates will come up to compensate." said Sasha Green of the Champaign County Clerk's Office. "As the value goes down, the rate will come up to give them the same dollars. The people who are still there, their rates will go up to kind of compensate for those homes that are no longer there."
That's why it's important for rebuilding to happen quickly in Gifford, she said, "so that as they all come back and rebuild with new construction money, then theoretically, their base EAV will be greater."
Grimsley has mixed emotions about that solution.
"If that's the case," he said, "that's going to be tough for those people who weren't affected, because now they're paying more. I don't want to hear that, because it's not good all around."
The empty lots and word that some residents might be leaving Gifford makes him "very anxious," Grimsley said.
"That's the other disheartening thing now. You drive around town and you see all these 'For sale by owner' signs popping up and there's nothing but a hole in the ground and an empty lot," he said. "I'm not talking about tomorrow. I'm looking at next year and the year after. Three years from now, what will be the status of Gifford and the school here? How many students are we going to lose? What will our taxing situation look like with our EAV? Are we going to have to rely on the state more now? I don't think anybody wants to have to do that."
Not all of the financial news is bad, he acknowledged.
"The blessing we have now, though, is that we're going to have some extra funds this coming year due to the windmills (from the nearby California Ridge wind farm) coming in. That will help us here in Gifford," he said. "Those 22 windmills are supposed to add $4.8 million to our EAV this year. So that makes everything else a wash."
And "fortunately for us, the board of education and previous administrations have been very fiscally sound and we have a good amount of reserves in all accounts. So we can afford a year or two of uncertainty more than other school districts could."
But "if there's a home that's not rebuilt, then they're just taxing on the land that's there," he said. "And that's a small percentage compared to what you get when there's a home there. It concerns me for the future, as far as our EAV and how much in taxing dollars we will lose."
Grimsley said he and an informal committee of village leaders are already "looking at long-term planning and brainstorming. We're trying to be proactive in order to make sure that Gifford doesn't go backward."