Champaign County removed property tax search by name sought by officials seeking confidentiality, but decision confuses other assessors

Champaign County eliminated the ability for a person to search property tax records by a homeowner’s first and last name in the new 2018 tax system, although nearly all other counties in Illinois allow it. always and thus see the improved quality of service.

For a short time, name searching was possible in the new system, but in 2019 CU-CitizenAccess was told in an email from Andy Rhodes, an information technology worker for Champaign County, that “The Treasurer and Evaluator have requested that the ability to search by name be removed.

The Champaign County property tax records search system, DEVNET, which does not allow searching by landlord name.

Then-treasurer Laurel Prussing did not return multiple requests for comment. However, in a response to this article, Prussing said she had “never argued for such a measure.” But current Champaign County Treasurer Cassandra Johnson responded last month.

She said: “According to my colleague who has been here forever, it was done for security and legal reasons, but this is second hand information, so I cannot say for sure if it is. ‘was in fact the reason or the only reason.

But in a phone interview with Champaign County Assessor Paula Bates last month, she said, “I believe it has always been the prerogative of elected officials that since we have a lot of judges, police and of older people, they don’t want them to be targeted or feel insecure.

However, property records, including names, can be obtained through a freedom of information law and placed in a searchable database. CU-CitizenAccess successfully obtained the entire database for several tax years. In other words, not allowing search by name in software simply makes it more difficult to find an owner’s name, rather than preventing it altogether.

In 2015, CU-CitizenAccess used the database for a project on how county landlords receive up to 150 property tax exemptions for rental properties under the General Family Property Exemption. This exemption, typically $ 6,000, is meant to apply only to the home a homeowner lives in, but the then county appraiser said a loophole allowed multiple exemptions, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Additionally, according to web pages recorded by the Internet Archive, the name search function was removed in the previous AS400 property search application around April 2008, simply citing “privacy concerns”. Currently, property tax records do not include personal information other than the owner’s name, address, and mailing address.

The county currently uses DEVNET tax software, which is used with name search by more than half of the counties in Illinois.

When asked if security concerns were the reason for not being able to search by name, Bates explained: “True, it was also due to security concerns, but I’ve been here for five. years, and it’s always been like that. ”

Contrary to Bates’ statement, the change in the search function of the current tax system actually happened three years ago, and Bates was said to have been one of the people who specifically requested the change.

In addition, the contract with DEVNET entered into force in December 2018, less than five years ago. The five-year contract shows a cost of $ 100,325 in four installments from late 2018 to mid-2019. The following four years have an annual cost of $ 81,680 through 2023, a cumulative total cost of $ 427,045 in taxpayer dollars for the contract.

Unlike Champaign County’s choice to eliminate the search-by-name feature, other county assessors have commented on their positive experiences in allowing the use of the software feature.

For example, Douglas County Assessor Cynthia Baer said in a telephone interview: “To my knowledge, there have been no security issues or other issues with the Douglas software. . I would add that it seems pretty standard to search by name because just yesterday I was on a website for Palm Beach County Florida, and was able to search by name.

Douglas County uses DEVNET for property tax records and allows search by owner name.

“It makes it easier and also prevents the public from asking for information at the office, which makes sense because if they came to ask for the same information, we can’t deny it anyway,” Baer added.

Baer’s statement was corroborated by Johnson, the Champaign County Treasurer, who also noted that “there are certainly complications in being able to only search by address or parcel number because the information is much more complex. . “

Baer could not think of any other reasons why Champaign County does not allow searching by name, other than perhaps the fact that Douglas is a much smaller county.

McLean County Assessor Robert Kahman said transparency had improved the quality of his service in a telephone interview last month.

“When I 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 level of transparency in our office, including access to property information by name, complaints plummeted.”

McLean County uses DEVNET for property tax records and allows search by owner name.

Kahman added that searching by parcel number, for example, is “archaic” and that “nobody knows their number these days, so I just can’t understand not allowing search by name.”

“Regarding the security concerns, if someone really wants to hide, they can put their property in a trust and it’s simple to do, so removing a search by name would be pointless in my opinion,” said Kahman. “For me, good government has always been transparent government. And it is not related to the 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.

From Baer and Kahman’s comments, it appears that allowing a name search in property tax application software makes it easier to access publicly available property tax information for all parties involved. In addition, if the reasoning is a matter of security, the removal of the search function does not eliminate access to the information, it instead forces you to take a heavier path to find it, such as filing a FOIA asks, which could reveal the names of every landowner in the county.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement by Laurel Prussing.

Nic Meister / For CU-CitizenAccess

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