by Bruce Checefsky
Out numbering homeowners in a display of unflinching determination, Cuyahoga County representatives lined the meeting room at Westshore Opportunity Center on February 20th with folding tables and chairs, brightly colored banners, and packets of information to assist local residents seeking relief for their recent property tax assessments. Among the county departments on hand were Cuyahoga County Senior and Adult Services, Board of Revisions (BOR), Homestead Exemption Program, Delinquent Tax Outreach Program, and Cuyahoga County Consumer Affairs.
With potentially tens of millions of dollars at stake on both sides, the show of government support put on by the county did little to convince the crowd that relief was in sight. Homeowners have seen a spike in their property taxes anywhere from 25% to 350%, an example of just how inconsistent the assessed value process appears on paper. In reality, it’s even more disturbing. The elderly and those on a fixed income are most vulnerable and, according to some, most likely to lose their homes or be forced to move if voter-approved levies and state lawmakers continue to fully fund public schools. Higher property taxes mean less to spend on basic necessities such as food and utilities, a tipping point in a period of financial stress that’s forcing some to consider moving outside Cuyahoga County.
“Something has to be done,” said Melody Perry, a Tremont homeowner. “The economy isn’t going to force people to lose their homes. The increase of property taxes will. We can’t afford it. I want to leave the city when I decide to go. I don’t want to be forced out. I’ve worked my whole life to have a home.”
State lawmakers have ignored property tax issues for years and done little to ease the problem. In his campaign speeches from last year, Governor Mike DeWine declared that lower taxes make Ohio more attractive to people and new investments. He also said that a fair tax rate lowers the burden on job creators and families. But no one expects Governor DeWine to listen to low and middle-income taxpayers any time soon.
However, seniors aged 65 (+) can apply for the Homestead Exemption Program, a credit/exemption on the first $25,000 of taxable value. Veterans get a credit/exemption on the first $50,000 of taxable value. To qualify for the exemption, applicants must be an Ohio resident at least 65 years old, or totally and permanently disabled, a Veteran who has been determined to have a total service related disability of 100%, or 59 years old and the widow/widower of someone who previously qualified. Homeowners must meet a threshold income of $32,800 for 2019.
Forty-six states use homestead tax exemptions to decrease the real estate tax burden on homeowners. Overall, across Ohio, qualified homeownerssaved an average of about $495 per taxpayer during the 2015 tax year.
Homestead Exemption Program applicants must file by December 31stof 2019 for the 2019 tax year. The form is available on the Department of Taxation’s website and is also available from county auditors. (https://www.tax.ohio.gov/portals/0/forms/real_property/dte_105a.pdf)
“It’s a simple process,” said Donna Carter, from the Cuyahoga County Fiscal Officer. “For those that don’t fall within the income restrictions, if Social Security is your only source of income, there’s an addendum form which you attach to the application. Once you’re on the Homestead Exemption, you just file a continuing form yearly.”
The Dayton Daily News reported in 2017 that filings for the homestead property tax exemption were at a 10-year low, with the total number of participants in the program declining for three consecutive years. State imposed income limits to reduce the cost of Homestead Exemption have made the program more restrictive while massive tax breaks continue for many wealthy older Ohioans.
“My property taxes doubled this year,” said Melissa Daubert, a self-employed artist/homeowner who lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood for the past 22 years. “I’ve never had to deal with something like this before. And realistically, I expect nothing will be done about it. I’m hoping they made a mistake.”
“They’re selling condos in my neighborhood for $500,000,” said Steven, a portrait painter living near Franklin and 65thStreet. “If you fix up your house, you end up paying the county more taxes. It’s ridiculous. They can squeeze money out of you without any recourse.”
Nancy McCormick has been a resident of Clinton Avenue for more than 35 years. “My taxes tripled,” she chimed in. “I want someone to explain why my taxes are so high when my neighbors are less than mine.”
“Supposedly, the entire county went up by about 10%,” added Stephen. “Our neighborhood in the Detroit Shoreway alone went up by more than 90% in many appraisals. It’s not fair.”
A majority of property owners were thereto file a Complaint Against The Valuation Of Real Property, the requisite one-page form needed to schedule a hearing with the Board of Revision. Shelley Davis, Administrator for the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision, said that several applications were successfully submitted that evening. “The burden of proof is on the homeowner,” she added.“Show us that you have water in the basement, or the windows are busted in the attic, or you have an obsolete kitchen or bathroom, or your foundation is cracked.”
Michael Sweeney, Tax Administrator for the Cuyahoga County Treasury Department, explained why it was important for the county to host a community meeting with local property owners at Westshore Opportunity Center.
“We’re reconstituting some of the community outreach programs as opportunities to talk to our customers,“ he said. “This particular event this evening at Westshore Opportunity Center was organized because the reappraisal process has been at the center of conversation and concern for our property owners. The original conversation was to have representatives from the county come to thewest side to talk about the Board of Revision process and the absolute right that property owners have to pursue that complaint process.”
Lisa Rocco, Director of Operations for the Cuyahoga County Fiscal Office, reiterated that the sole purpose of the meeting with county officials was to help and support residents in filing the proper paperwork to have their property reassessment reviewed by the Board of Revision.
Providing evidence regarding your property’s evaluation is an essential part of the process. The more evidence the better, according to Rocco. Examples of types of evidence include an arms-length sale, documented by recorded deed, closing statement purchase contract and/or conveyance fee statement; professional appraisal report of the subject property made for tax valuation purposes; certified estimates from a contractor for repairs cited on the complaint; dated interior/exterior photos of the property and comparable properties showing the condition; and new construction costs certified by the builder. This should include both materials and labor costs. The deadline for submitting a complaint form is April 1st.
Evidence can be submitted in person at 2079 E. 9th Street, 2nd Floor, Cleveland, or by mail at to 2079 E. 9th Street, 2nd Floor, Cleveland OH 44115. Email at BORinfo@cuyahogacounty.us, or fax 216-443-8282.
“We don’t want you to lose your house,” Rocco added. “It’s been hard to see the faces of people affected by this. We provide outreach to help homeowners with the difficulty of the process.”
As the community meeting came to an end, Rocco stood with her arms folded and reflected on the evening event. “I’ve been in public service all my life. My dad was in public service. I was raised in it and its part of who I am. If I can help just one person it’s well worth it. I love meeting and talking to people.”