For Sandra Jones, the higher-than-expected property tax bill meant the projects she had planned to turn her house into a home would have to wait.
The window would remain broken and the small leak under the bathroom sink would continue to drip because more money than she had budgeted for would be going to cover the bigger house payment.
Jones is among the many Hoosier homeowners who are surprised every year by their property assessments. They can file an appeal with the county assessor’s office to get what they believe is a tax bill more appropriate for the value of the home but the process can take a long time to get a response.
At Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the attorneys suspected there was a gap in pro bono tax help for owners of homes valued at $150,000 or less. They were looking for a volunteer opportunity so they organized the first ever Homeowner Property Tax Clinic.
For two hours on a January evening, they offered their services to Marion County homeowners. They were set up in two rooms of the Legacy Center and helped about 22 individuals.
Brent Auberry, partner at FBD, was the lead attorney on the effort. Judy Ferber, paralegal, organized the evening, modeling it on the Ask-a-Lawyer events.
Initially the FBD organizers did not know how many people would come but soon the three tables of attorneys meeting with clients were expanded to four.
“I had a feeling like a little energy, a little buzz in the air,” Auberry said, recalling the atmosphere of the clinic. He attributed the excitement to people leaving the clinic with either a resolution or a promise that the county assessor would contact them in a few days.
Jones got a resolution that day. Weeks later she still sounded elated as she described walking from the clinic and being done with the process. The clinic, she said, was a “godsend to me.”
When Jones purchased the home, others told her the appraisal was too high. So she filed to have the house reassessed in October but was told the house had already been reassessed in April, four months prior to her purchasing it. When she explained she was asking for a more recent assessment, she was told to file again.
Filing again was not simple. Jones noted going online and trying to find answers can be confusing, and going to the assessor’s office in person to make the appeal meant she would have to miss work.
The tax clinic gave her another option.
“I was extremely happy I did (attend the clinic) because they really adjusted it appropriately,” Jones said.
Along with six FBD attorneys, Auberry brought along two real estate consultants as well as Marion County Assessor Joe O’Connor. The lawyers met with the homeowners on one end of the room, going through the paperwork and listening to the homeowners.
Clients were to come with the Form 11, the tax bill and any supporting information like sale price of another home in neighborhood and the condition of the homeowner’s property. After meeting with the homeowners, learning about their situation and going through the documents, the attorneys could then go directly to the assessor.
“Most important,” Auberry said, “we got the parties in same room at the same time.”
Homeowners have a sense when their properties are overvalued but they don’t always know why. Our job, Auberry said, was to look at the property and see if evidence matches the homeowner’s suspicion.
Without the clinic, Jones is uncertain what she would have done.
“I’m sure I would have had to re-appeal,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe not anything if I had to hire an attorney. I would just have been stuck.”•