The owners of about 1,100 homes in New Trier Township ought to consider throwing a party for Jane Goldenberg — or at least send her a nice thank you note.
Goldenberg is the individual who tried to convince Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to take into account whether homes are located on a floodplain when his office values property for real estate tax purposes.
And in so doing, Goldenberg collectively saved those homeowners a ton of money on their future tax bills — assuming the Cook County Board of Review concurs with Kaegi’s unprecedented approach to lowering their assessments.
Goldenberg says she did it the old-fashioned way, by writing a personal letter, which she sent through the U.S. Postal Service — with a stamp and everything — to someone she’s never met. [Nor given a campaign donation, for you cynics.]
“Dear Assessor Kaegi,” Goldenberg began, bypassing the formal property tax appeal system and eschewing the instant gratification of an email in a desperate hope of getting somebody’s attention.
“I thought it would get more noticed that way,” Goldenberg said.
She was right. It did get noticed. The assessor’s office decided to study the issue and then, in a surprise move last month, lowered the assessments on 1,136 homes in the floodplain —most of them in Winnetka — by an average of 19 percent. Her Northfield home is one of them.
Goldenberg, a writer and a former Northfield village trustee, said it just goes to show the importance of speaking up when you think your government is making a mistake.
“Sometimes someone listens,” Goldenberg said.
I’ve already expressed my skepticism about Kaegi’s decision to seek a mass “correction” of assessments on the New Trier floodplain homes, giving what I consider to be questionable tax breaks to folks in some of Cook County’s poshest neighborhoods.
But I have to say Goldenberg makes a very persuasive case about her own situation.
Goldenberg, 59, and her husband reside on Meadowview Drive, near the Skokie River, where they’ve lived since 1991.
In September of 2008, massive rainfall in northeastern Illinois caused major flooding. Nine counties, including Cook, were declared federal disaster areas.
Goldenberg’s home was among the hardest hit when the storm sewers backed up, turning her end of the street into a retention pond.
Eventually, she and her husband tore down the old house and built a new “green” one in conformance with FEMA guidelines, elevating the structure to remove it from the flood danger zone and building it without a basement.
Even before that, Goldenberg successfully campaigned for construction of a new sewer system in the neighborhood to correct the design flaws that had contributed to the 2008 flood.
They haven’t had any problems since then, she said.
As a climate activist, Goldenberg knows she can’t rule out future weather calamities, but she doesn’t expect the property to flood again.
Yet when she and her husband put the house up for sale two and a half years ago, they found the real estate marketplace less convinced than the tax assessor, which all along had continued to value her home much higher than anyone wanted to pay of it.
Then this year’s proposed reassessment arrived, valuing the house even higher at $2.3 million.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ Actually, I cried,” Goldenberg said, correcting herself.
Even buyers that were interested in the home were scared off by the high taxes, she said.
Meanwhile, a neighbor sold her house for about half of its assessed value, a clear indication something was amiss with valuations on her street.
That’s when Goldenberg wrote her letter.
“We hope you can figure out a way to ensure victims of natural disaster don’t get devastated again by unfair property assessments,” she concluded.
Goldenberg said she was “stunned” when she got a call from the assessor’s office informing her of the decision to reduce the New Trier floodplain assessments.
She was especially gratified to hear that, going forward, the assessor’s office was promising to use floodplain impact as a factor in evaluating assessments throughout the county.
Goldenberg’s house is currently under contract to a buyer who is paying less than the $1.4 million asking price, which was already below even the assessor’s new “corrected” market value of $1.5 million.
I’ll eat my [Cardinals] hat if there are 1,135 New Trier floodplain stories to match hers.