Evanston aldermen have put the township assessor’s budget on the chopping block

Township Assessor Sharon Eckersall has proposed increasing her office’s spending 7 percent this year over its actual expenses last year.

That drew the ire of several aldermen who’ve spent several months slicing the city’s budget to keep it to an increase of well under one percent.

Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, who once served as township assessor, Tuesday proposed cutting the assessor’s budget 15 percent below last year’s spending level.

The assessor’s budget is less than 13 percent of the total township budget of $1.3 million. That in turn is tiny compared to the city’s $187 million budget, but the aldermen, in their dual role as township trustees, are responsible for setting it.

Ald. Bernstein said Ms. Eckersall’s written response to questions he raised about the budget at a Human Services Committee meeting totally failed to answer questions he had raised.

The biggest change Ald. Bernstein proposed was a reduction of the assessor’s legal budget from $25,000 to $5,000. He said he believes the attorney who’s been representing the assessor’s office in an employment dispute “has been overbilling us.”

The alderman also called for eliminating a part-time contractual assistant’s job in the office and cutting funds for travel, subscriptions, equipment, supplies and printing and postage.

In most of those budget categories the assessor had proposed substantial increases over actual spending last year.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said Human Services Committee members “have been raising questions all year with the assessor about her budget.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she can’t understand “why in the world with this city slashing employees that have meaningful jobs that make huge contributions to the community we are paying a deputy assessor $53,000 a year and an administrative assistant $19,800.”

“The township is an archaic form of government,” Ald. Rainey added. “It should be wiped off the map. There’s some gross incompetence operating here costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.”

Ms. Eckersall, who makes $6,000 a year in the part-time elected position of assessor, resisted Ald. Bernstein’s call for eliminating the part-time assistant’s position.

“My deputy assessor has been sick for a month,” she said, “due to stress from working too many hours during the appeals. If I hadn’t had the part-time assistant I would not have had anybody in the office.”

The main role of the township assessor’s office is to assist taxpayers in filing appeals of property tax assessments that are set by the county assessor.

But it’s now possible for property owners to file their own appeals online at the county assessor’s web site.

In addition the county assessor’s branch offices and the office of County Commissioner Larry Suffredin offer similar assistance at no cost to township taxpayers. And several commercial services offer to file tax appeals for residents for a fee.

Those developments have raised questions about whether the township assessor provides a service that’s worth the cost.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, urged Ms. Eckersall to provide a list of how many appeals her office had helped taxpayers with, “and we need to know who we can call downtown to verify what has been done.”

“If you’re not providing service then there’s no need for this office to exist,” Ald. Jean-Baptiste said.

The aldermen postponed a scheduled vote on the township budget in hopes of receiving more information from the assessor before their next meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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