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SPECIAL REPORT: enFocus study finds room for improvement in St. Joseph County assessments

WSBT-22

When Bill Wasierski’s two kids became teenagers, he knew he would have to make changes to their South Bend home.

“We just need a little more space for them,” he laughed.

Several years after living in the home, the Wasierski’s decided to the make additions but knew it would come at a cost. Wasierski said an assessor has already been out to their home and will return once the renovation is complete.

“I’m hoping it will be fair and they do it correct,” said Wasierski. “As long as they keep market values accurate – I’m OK with that.”

Wasierski is one of thousands of St. Joseph County homeowners who received their latest property assessment, almost simultaneously, as taxpayers are also funding a study that is digging deeper into the county’s assessment process itself.

County Assessor Rosemary Mandrici said that an estimated 45% of all assessed values for 2017-2018 did not change. She added that 28% of assessed values increased while 29% decreased.

But not all homeowners are happy with their latest assessment. Bea DeSimone visited the assessor’s office on Monday afternoon to file her appeal.

DeSimone said her assessment went up $36,700 from the previous year and she feels it’s unfair because she didn’t change her property except for some painting.

“I do know that there is some land on each side of me that is not that much,” said DeSimone. “Doing some comparable, I found that I had definite reason to appeal.”

Helen Johnston echoed DeSimone’s sentiments. Her assessment has been consistent except this year, when it went up $2,000.

“I’m on social security, no other income,” she said. “I’m appealing.”

According to the State of Indiana, if a property assessment is 5-percent higher than the previous year, the burden of proof lies on the assessor.

The state of Indiana also laid out how assessments should be done. It identifies “trending” in which property values are adjusted to account for market values fluctuating.

The assessor may use “sales of properties in a neighborhood, area, or class of property” from the past 14 months. The assessor may also factor in physical characteristics and the condition of the property.

According to state documents, the assessor does not have to change the assessment each year, only when there are significant changes to a property or when there is a “clear indication based on market evidence” that the assessment isn’t the most accurate.

Mandrici said her department uses a mass appraisal approach and adjusts that based on the market. She said assessors perform a trending analysis that could adjust the cost upward or downward.

She said the county evaluates every neighborhood in the county annually, not every home.

Several homeowners reached out to WSBT 22 on Facebook asking if their increased property assessments are linked to the circuit breaker tax caps in 2020. The county will be 6-7 million dollars short because of the tax caps.

“The two are not linked in the slightest,” said St. Joseph County Commissioner Andy Kostielney. “What’s happened is we think some properties have been under assessed. We’ve also talked to taxpayers whose property taxes will be going down because their assessed value has actually decreased.”

The tax caps were signed into law in 2008 under then-governor Mitch Daniels. Under Indiana code, Lake and St. Joseph County were exempted from the already existent state mandated 1% tax cap on residential properties.

“After the maturity date, taxpayers in St. Joseph County will be taxed at 1, 2, or 3-percent of the gross assessed value after exemptions, similar to other taxpayers across the state,” said Spokesperson Jenny Banks. “The exception will be for taxing units that have voter-approved referenda.”

Banks added that New Prairie United School Corporation has a debt referendum fund and School City of Mishawaka Corporation has an operating referendum fund.

She also added that assessments are not based on “an expected revenue outcome.”

Studying the process: The enFocus study and its findings

While homeowners were receiving their latest property assessments, efforts are underway to take a closer look at the assessment process itself in St. Joseph County and Penn Township.

The study, led by South Bend-based enFocus, cost taxpayers $125,000; $40,000 from South Bend, $60,000 from St. Joseph County and $25,000 from Mishawaka.

“We had a lot of anecdotal evidence that some of the assessments weren’t accurate and what not and we wanted to find out if that was endemic or not,” said County Auditor Mike Hamann.

The study began in Penn Township and went into St. Joseph County and looked at assessing procedures.

“According to the study, there are areas where they’re not accurate,” said Hamann.

Part of that study said local assessors were able to override land values resulting in “millions of dollars in incorrect assessed land values.” It also said if St. Joseph County were to improve its system, it could result in several millions of dollars per year.

In a phone interview, Mandrici said: “Every study could be based on whatever data they’re looking at. We already knew that there were some inequities as far as override that we removed from the land.”

Based on the enFocus findings, both South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood both verbally committed more money to fund future enFocus efforts to improve the assessment process, according to Hamann. At this point, it’s not clear how much that could cost.

The findings raised new questions if the assessing procedure may have impacted county departments which are cutting back budgets in anticipation for 2020.

“The road to equity and accuracy, as well as increase revenues for some of those departments runs right through the assessor’s office,” said Hamann. “If they’re doing well, if they’re firing on all cylinders, then we’re going to have a better chance of providing necessary revenue for those departments.”When Bill Wasierski’s two kids became teenagers, he knew he would have to make changes to their South Bend home.

For more information on the appeal process, visit the Department of Local Government Finance or your assessor's office.

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