Talk focuses on assessments, vacant housing
Officials included Rosemary Mandrici, the county assessor; Peter Mullen, county auditor; Mike Kruk, county treasurer; Rafael Morton, County Council president; and Andrew Kostielney, the president of the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners. They met with a standing-room-only crowd at the LaSalle Branch of the county public library.
Linda Wolfson, president of the board of the Community Foundation for Economic Development, said the panel was brought together to answer many questions she and the foundation have heard over the past months.
"It's important that the public understands the depth of (property taxes, assessments and solutions for vacant housing)," she said before the meeting. "I think decisions are stronger when they're made with community involvement."
Many questions focused on how the factors applied to properties, such as trending values and cost tables, are determined. Mandrici said these values come from the state, and it's the job of her office to apply them to the county.
A repeated answer to many individual questions was the same: appeal.
"When you get a Form 11 (a document listing assessment value and other property information), review it and file an appeal if you feel the value is different," Mandrici said. "You can even file a protective appeal, just a letter with your name, address, tax number and phone number, before you file the long-form appeal. ... If we get cost tables annually from the state, we have to apply that to everyone."
Many people said they were upset with the appeal process, having spent years reappealing the same properties over and over. Kostielney explained to residents that Mandrici came into office with a backlog of appeals going back years. Once those appeals become for the current year, which, according to Mandrici, should be within the next two months, the appeals process should go smoother, Kostielney added.
The panelists also addressed questions on county spending. Mullen, whose office "pays the bills" of the county, said the goal of the county is not to create surpluses.
"We're not in the business to save money," Mullen said. "We have a Rainy Day Fund, just in case something blows up, metaphorically speaking, but we're not hoarding money. We want to spend money to the best benefit of the people."
Residents also asked questions on the recent Vacant and Abandoned Properties Taskforce Report, a document released by the task force which looks for possible solutions for blighted properties within the community. One such solution is land banking, or gathering land into one ownership to either sell it together or use it for a larger project.
Morton said that landbanking is considered, but all solutions are still in conversation and aren't set in stone.
"We're in the conversation conceptually," he added.
Resident Marguerite Taylor said her questions didn't have a complete answer, but that she was satisfied with the conversation.
"I think it was a good start to a bigger conversation," she said after the meeting. "People are upset, and they want answers. I don't think this is the end, and I liked this meeting because it gave us a chance to ask questions and get answers in a non-threatening manner."
Staff writer Amanda Gray: