In a typical reassessment year for Oak Park, the 40 days between the mailing of reassessments and the deadline for assessment appeals is the busiest time of the year for Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar.
He increases his full-time staff of one with six or seven new employees and works night and day on appeals for Oak Park property owners. This year has been anything but typical. Reassessments went out Feb. 27, and a few weeks later, regular activity came to a screeching halt with stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus.
“Reassessment is always a crazy time in our office,” ElSaffar said. “You add in a pandemic, and it becomes a lot crazier. We have in-person appointments for appeals, and over the years, we have steadily increased to where we are seeing 60 to 70 residents a day during the appeals period.”
He recalls watching the news around March 8 and hearing about a handful of coronavirus cases in the state and wondering how it would impact the appeals process. By March 12, he realized that in-person appointments would have to be stopped, but it took a lot of work to halt and reimagine a process that was well underway.
The entire month of March was booked solid with appointments, so the first order of business was calling everyone who had appointments to let them know they would become virtual appointments done over the phone.
“Just like everything, when you have a process that works well, and then you go and change everything, it takes a while,” ElSaffar said.
Over the week of March 16, he worked to set up the office to conduct the appeals process remotely. It was time during which he says his unanswered voicemails ballooned.
While the Cook County Assessor’s office was initially reluctant to change deadlines, ElSaffar said that he and other township assessors reached out to ask for more time, and it quickly became clear the assessor’s office would agree.
“There was good reason for them not to want to change the deadline — communities and schools rely on this money,” ElSaffar said. “But then the assessor’s office had to stop some of their employees from coming in.”
The Cook County Assessor’s website (www.cookcountyassessor.com) states their office is currently closed to the public and customer service via phone is also suspended. It notes that the deadline for appeals has been suspended until further notice.
ElSaffar said that for villages in the western suburbs who had not yet received reassessment notices, those notices will be delayed as well.
“Berwyn’s notices were supposed to go out in early April,” ElSaffar said. “I think the assessor’s office realized, wisely, that you don’t want to freak people out in the middle of a pandemic.”
As of April 1, ElSaffar and his co-workers have filed 1,050 appeals for Oak Parkers, and they are booked solid through the initial appeals deadline of April 7 with appointments. He said that any Oak Park resident who wants to file an appeal can call his office and make an appointment and they will continue to work to help residents.
As to what the new deadline for appeals will be, ElSaffar says it is hard to predict and notes that even the IRS has extended its April deadline to mid-July.
“The truth of the matter is, it all depends on how long this goes on,” ElSaffar said. “For 30-something years, our second installment bills were always late, and we got that back on track. We’re at a point where we have to react to the times.”
ElSaffar cautions that it may be an urban legend, but that there is a rumor the reason why Cook County pays property taxes in arrears is said to be because of a break taken during the Great Depression.
Could he see any delay in the bills that go out in summer 2019? Again, he says it depends on how long the pandemic continues and the circumstances faced by residents. If people are facing grave financial difficulties in the late summer, perhaps there could be a delay.
“I can’t tell you when the appeals period will end or if bills will be due as they regularly are,” ElSaffar said. “The government still has to work, but I can imagine a scenario in which people have problems paying their mortgages or their bills.
“It is a reassessment period to remember.”
ElSaffar reminds residents they can still take advantage of his office’s free services for appeals and urges them to call 708-383-8005 to set up a phone appointment.