‘Don’t wait’: Mayor urges county official, seeks advice on steps forward

GIBSON CITY, Ill. (WCIA) — Roughly 1,800 (or 18% of) Gibson City home and business owners were saddled with paying inflated property tax bills, according to mayor Dan Dickey. The first of two payments is due Friday.

“It could be, ballpark could be $50. It could be $500 or more for businesses,” Mayor Dickey said of the increase in taxes in an interview at his home Wednesday.

The dollar amount is dependent on the value of the property, but the affected taxpayers owe 40-60% more than they did last year. Mayor Dickey said the tax bill on his home was inflated by 60%.

The city did not raise taxes. Instead, it was an ‘inadvertent’ computing error at the Ford County Clerk and Recorder’s office that led to the widespread impact.

It all links back to $232,714 that the city thought it covered to avoid charging the taxpayers.

“The idea was to build a new pool. Our Gibson City pool is over 100 years old,” Dickey began.

To do so, the city filed a tax increment financing (TIF) bond with the county, meaning the city plans to use an expected increase in future tax revenue to pay for the pool, without raising taxes.

Then the project was put on hold, “because costs went way up,” the mayor explained.

In the meantime, the city filed a tax abatement ordinance last December, covering its debt to Ford County for the year to keep the promise not to raise taxes.

“And that got missed. That’s what the problem is,” Dickey said.

The Ford County Clerk and Recorder Amy Frederick apologized for the error in a late August statement when WCIA 3 pressed for an explanation. Frederick said she accidentally neglected to include the ordinance, including the abated $232,714, in the finalized levy that was sent to the Ford County Treasurer to then bill Gibson City residents.

“Now, to be fair, they did send us a verification letter,” Dickey said. “And admin, like they have every year, signed off on it and sent it back. They did not catch the county’s mistake.”

A city administrative staff member signed the completed levy and returned it to Frederick’s office before it was sent to the treasurer, part of the verification process county officials continue to point back to.

In emails WCIA obtained, Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole advised the mayor to request that the county reimburse taxpayers because the city “properly adopted and filed its tax ordinance and that should be the controlling document.”

“I’m not concerned about the mistake, I’m more concerned about how we fix it,” the mayor emphasized.

That won’t happen, at this point, before Gibson City taxpayers make the first of two payments by Friday at the incorrectly inflated rate.

In another obtained email to Ford County State’s Attorney Andrew Killian, the mayor pushed for the county to correct the inflated payments by subtracting the overpayments from the second installment (due Nov. 18). The city offered to cover 50% of the cost, according to Dickey.

“That’s what we’re hoping, but that is totally up to the county,” he said in the Wednesday interview.

County officials were more responsive directly following that interview than they have been since this first surfaced in late August as home and business owners began getting their tax statements in the mail.

Ford County Treasurer & Ex-Efficio County Collector Krisha Shoemaker — whose office would need to reissue the statements reflecting a credit to the second installment — said that happening before the end of the year is unlikely.

The county office doesn’t have enough time or staff to redo the 18% of Gibson City’s bills that are incorrect without delaying distribution of tax money to all cities in Ford County, according to Shoemaker.

Leave these property owners and businesses without relief until next year could pose tax liabilities, Dickey said, reflecting a message echoed in Cole’s email.

“If they pay us back next year, if the county does, the value of our money’s gonna be a lot less just based on inflation,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s never happened to us before.”

“It’s gonna hurt our residents,” Dickey said with certainty. “And it’s not a good year.”

Part of the reason there’s so little time to fix the improper bills ahead of the payment deadlines is that the tax statements were sent out months late to begin with. On an average year, the mail arrives anywhere between May and July, Dickey said.

Frederick blamed the delay on the vacancy in the county assessor’s seat, the office where the property tax process begins.

She completed and sent off the county’s levies six days after first receiving the Estimated Assessed Valuations (EAVs) from the assessor’s office on July 19 “in an attempt to get the taxes out without any further delay,” her Aug. 29 statement to WCIA read.

“We’re not dragging our feet,” Frederick said over the phone Wednesday.

“I’ve spent hours upon hours” working on possible solutions, Shoemaker added.

Ultimately, it’s become a costly, tough-to-fix mistake that could’ve been stopped in several places. To add another layer of protection, Dickey suggested requiring all finalized levies be signed off on by a city official like himself, the city treasurer, or the clerk rather than administrative staff.

City and county officials have met twice this month and will meet again Friday. The upcoming meeting is expected to include Gibson City administration, the treasurer, and the state’s attorney. Shoemaker said she hopes a solution is agreed upon then, although it’s unlikely taxpayers will get their money back until next year. Mayor Dickey believes there’s a way to make it happen sooner.

Questions about property tax payments and reimbursements should be referred to the treasurer’s office.