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URBANA — The Cunningham Township Assessor's Office is getting ready for its quadrennial assessment of all properties in the city with a project it is calling Operation Fair Assessment.

The office is up against a mountain of work. At the beginning of Monday's meeting of the township board — comprised of the same people as the Urbana City Council — newly sworn-in Deputy Assessor William Harris handed board members random property cards pulled from the office's records to show just how behind the office is in its work.

He asked board members to raise their hands if they had a property-assessment card from 2019, 2018 or another recent year.

Only Jared Miller pulled a 2018 card; all the others hadn't been touched since at least 2011, a trend Township Assessor Wayne Williams noticed during his first weeks in office.

"Things are constantly changing and these cards have not been maintained," Harris said.

Normally, the assessor's office should be re-assessing a quarter of all the properties in Urbana each year, Williams said. But given the backlog at the office, Williams asked the board Monday to approve a budget that included $110,000 of line items that stood out from last year's budget.

Williams said $71,000 will be used to support three part-time interns and one full-time employee whose sole job it will be to reasses all properties for the quad year. Salary range for that person will be between $28,000 to $35,000 depending on qualifications, Williams added, and the rest will go toward appraisals ($30,000) and postage ($9,075). 

That will help balance out the tax environment in the township, Harris said, because right now, "some neighborhoods are taxed high and some are taxed low based on property values that have not been up to date." They can't just hire anyone, Harris added, as they'll be directly dealing with the backlog of past-due assessments.

Under a law passed in 1975, property in Illinois should be assessed at one-third of its market value. But Williams and Harris have found that commercial property in particular shows a large differential, with those properties being assessed at an average of 24.11 percent of market value.

To even it out, Williams said there could be a 38.24 percent increase in the assessed value of commercial property next year, and he's already anticipating a large number of appeals to bombard his office.

"These aren't the property taxes themselves," Williams made clear to board members Monday. "As the value of commercial property increases, it changes the total assessed value of the properties in Urbana that the levy is then divided by to find the tax rate. This doesn't mean a raise in taxes."

Increasing the tax levy is still up to the various taxing bodies in Champaign County. The assessment is used as a multiplier, or a piece of the formula in coming up with a rate.

Still, Williams admitted that the increase will be stark. His office already made an 8.45 percent increase last year when doing commercial property assessments, but he said it "didn't move the needle," so the change is "going to be significant" in the future.

"This is what happens when you're not paying attention to the value of properties over time," Williams said. "For many years, nothing was done. A lot of these cards haven't been looked at since 2011. That's what I walked into January 1, 2018. I made some changes and we're doing better. We're going to move forward. But it is what it is and we're doing our best to fix it."

Williams and Harris are also changing up the way they're going about digitizing the thousands of physical cards. In the past, the assessor's office has hired college students to do the work. But through a partnership with Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth, the assessor's office will be tapping in to the network of residents in the community work program called Workfare.

"The interns we currently have are all from the supervisor's side now," Harris said. "We're partnering now with the supervisor's side not just to give people some work, but also to teach them important skills. It's an opportunity to get hands-on experience and get the knowledge necessary to succeed in the future."