We continue our weekly Friday Forum with a primary preview for an office that doesn't usually get a lot of attention.
While not considered a glamorous job, the down-ballot Freeport Township Assessor race sure is getting a lot of attention. Just check recent “Letters to the Editor” for proof.
Longtime Freeport Township assessor Cynthia Petta Connell decided against a re-election bid. She’d been working in the office since 1980.
That opened the field and turned up the heat for the office.
Third-generation Freeport resident Brad Hartog says he’s ready to take on the role.
“The same family has controlled the assessor’s office in Freeport for 50 years, so I was warned early on that this race could get very ugly and nasty; and that my opponent would not give up easily without a fight,” Hartog admits. “So this is something I certainly was not looking forward to, and I do not enjoy. I am really doing this to benefit the people of Freeport and move Freeport in a positive direction. I think we really need some positive change in this office.”
Hartog is a real-estate appraiser and current chairman of the Stephenson County property assessment appeal board of review.
Challenger Meta Ridgway has more than two decades of experience in the Freeport Township Assessor’s office and currently serves as chief deputy assessor.
“I am not a politician. I don’t enjoy being a politician. If I want to advance in my field, this is what I have to do. I have worked in the assessment field from the ground up. I kind of look at this like applying for a promotion,” Ridgway said. “It is just that the voters are my employer, and they are the ones that get to decide. I hope that my dedication to the job over the years and my compassion for the property owners when they come in is conveyed that I am looking out for the property owners and I am doing a fair and accurate job.”
The job description for an assessor includes the ability to makes sense of pretty complex calculations.
“The assessor’s office holds a lot of information as to the relevant characteristics of each property within the township,” Hartog explains.
“Many times, insurance agents, Realtors, and appraisers contact the assessor’s office looking for information rather frequently, sometimes on a daily basis. However, the homeowners usually contact the assessors to better understand how their property value is determined. I think it is up to the assessor to do a really good job on explaining to homeowners just how that they arrived at their assessed valued and do that in a way that makes sense to the homeowners.”
Ridgway says it’s not always a popular job, but involves a great deal of public service.
“When the public comes forward to voice a concern about their assessment, we have an open door-policy at this point that we want the public to be informed,” Ridgway said.
“We want them to come in and ask questions so we will help them fill out an appeal form if they really don’t agree with the value. We explain how we arrive at the value and, if they still don’t agree, they had a right to file and we will help them do that.”
Technology is a large part of the job to crunch those numbers.
“We have a computer program that basically has been tailor-made for us so we don’t have those extra costs because if we need something updated or upgraded, we can contract out to have that done,” Ridgway said.
That’s one area where the candidates disagree.
“Currently, the assessor’s office is using a very outdated, antiquated, and unsupported software system from the 1980s. I think by updating this software, we can become more efficient and more accurate, which will drive down the cost to the taxpayers,” Hartog said.
Another campaign issue is when the Freeport Township Assessor’s office is open … or not.
“I’ve checked with every full-time, staffed assessor’s office in northwest Illinois, and all of them are open 40+ hours a week except for Freeport Township,” Hartog said.
“I would put an end to half-day Fridays and require the staff to work 40 hours a week like the rest of the hardworking taxpayers of Freeport.”
Ridgway says this claim does not paint the full picture.
“When we were doing inspections of properties, when we go in to view to see if there are conditional issues, it was better to be available earlier in the morning. Our 37.5 hours that the employees get paid for is not any different than when it was 8-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is just that the hours changed so that we could accommodate the public.”
Both candidates have laid out wish lists for their first few months in office.
“The one thing I would like to implement is educating the public more than what we have been able to in the past,” Ridgway said, “even if it is open forums that they can come in and get more information. I want the public to be informed. It is huge. People need to have an understanding of how their properties are valued.”
Hartog wants to re-establish a collaboration with the Stephenson County Assessor.
“I think when we work together we can be more efficient, provide greater transparency, better customer service, and great accuracy,” Hartog said.
The primary will be held Tuesday, Feb 28.