Champaign County eliminated the ability for a person to search property tax records by an owner’s first and last name in 2018’s new tax system, despite almost every other county in Illinois still allowing it and seeing improved service quality as a result.
For a short time, the name search was possible under the new system, but in 2019, CU-CitizenAccess was informed in an email from Andy Rhodes, an Information Technology employee with Champaign County, that “the Treasurer and Assessor requested that the ability to search by name be removed.”
Then-incumbent Treasurer, Laurel Prussing, did not return multiple requests for a comment. However, in a response to this article, Prussing said she has “never advocated for such a measure.” But the current Treasurer of Champaign County, Cassandra Johnson, did respond last month.
She said that, “According to my colleague who has been here forever, it was done as a security measure and from the legal side of things, but this is secondhand information, so I can’t say for certain if that was in fact the reason or the only reason.”
But in a phone interview with the Champaign County Assessor Paula Bates last month she said, “I believe that it’s always been the elected official’s prerogative that since we have a lot of judges, police and senior citizens, they didn’t want them to be targeted or feel unsafe.”
However, the property records, including names, can be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act and put into a searchable database. CU-CitizenAccess successfully obtained the entire database for several tax years. In other words, not allowing one to search by name in the software simply makes finding a property owner’s name more difficult, rather than preventing it altogether.
In 2015, CU-CitizenAccess used the database for a project on how landlords in the county receive up to 150 property tax exemptions for rental properties under the General Homestead Exemption. That exemption, generally $6,000, is supposed to be for only the home a property owner lives in, but the county assessor at the time said a loophole allowed for multiple exemptions, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars.
In addition, according to web pages saved by the Internet Archive, the name searching feature was removed in the previous AS400 property lookup application around April 2008, simply citing “privacy issues.” Currently, property tax records do not include personal information other than owner name, address and mailing address.
The county currently uses DEVNET tax software, which is used with name search by over half the counties in Illinois.
When asked about security issues being the reason for the inability to search by name, Bates explained, “That’s right, it was also due to some security issues, but I’ve been here for five years, and it’s always been this way.”
Contrary to Bates’ statement, the change in the current tax system’s search feature in fact occurred three years ago, and Bates was allegedly one of the people that specifically requested the change.
Furthermore, the contract with DEVNET went into effect in December 2018, less than five years ago. The five-year contract shows a cost of $100,325 in four payments from late-2018 to mid-2019. The four years afterward have an annual cost of $81,680 through 2023, a cumulative total cost of $427,045 in taxpayer dollars for the contract.
In contrast to Champaign County’s choice to eliminate the search by name feature, other county assessors commented on their positive experiences with allowing the use of the software feature.
For instance, Douglas County Assessor Cynthia Baer said in a phone interview that, “To my knowledge, there has not been any security issue or other issues with the software in Douglas. I would add that it seems pretty standard to search by name because just yesterday I was on a website for Palm Beach County in Florida, and I was able to search by name.”
“It makes it easier and also keeps the public out of the office requesting information, which makes sense because if they came in requesting the same information, then we can’t deny it anyways,” Baer added.
Baer’s statement was corroborated by Johnson, the Champaign County Treasurer, as she also noted that, “There are definitely some complications with only being able to search by address or parcel number because the information is a lot more complex.”
Baer was unable to think of other reasons as to why Champaign County does not allow one to search by name, except maybe the fact Douglas is a much smaller county.
McLean County’s Assessor, Robert Kahman, said transparency improved its service quality in a phone interview last month.
“When I first got here over two decades ago, it was a mess and there were an overwhelming number of complaints,” he said. “As soon as I increased the amount of transparency our office had, including access to property information by name, the complaints plummeted.”
Kahman added how searching by parcel number, for example, is “archaic” and that “no one knows their number anymore these days, so I just can’t understand not allowing to search by name.”
“As far as security issues go, if someone really wants to hide themself, they can put their property into a trust and it’s simple to do, so removing a search by name would be unnecessary in my opinion,” said Kahman. “To me, good government has always been transparent government. And that is not related to size. We are one of the largest counties in the state and the more transparency we have implemented the better people feel and the less they complain,” he added.
Based on Baer and Kahman’s comments, it appears that allowing one to search by name in the property tax inquiry software makes accessing publicly available property tax information easier for all parties involved. Further, if the reasoning is a matter of security, removing the search feature does not eliminate access to the information, rather it only makes one have to take a more cumbersome route to find it, such as filing a FOIA request, which could reveal the names of every property owner in the county.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Laurel Prussing.