Chapman dismisses township assessor's budget cut lawsuit
Madison County Associate Judge Thomas Chapman has dismissed a longtime elected official's lawsuit against the township she serves.
Wood River Township Assessor Thelma Kochan sued the township two years ago seeking court intervention after the board voted 4-1 to cut her budget.
Chapman wrote in a March 5 order that the board's decision "hardly" came close to being abusive.
"...this Plaintiff, through counsel at argument, is at a loss to say what relief she is seeking, and has trouble identifying whether she wants another hearing before the board, a different budgetary allotment from the board, or a different allotment imposed by the court," he wrote.
"...Plaintiff owns that the complained of change in her budget is in the neighborhood of only 7 or 15% off of the prior budget," Chapman wrote. "(Defendants argue that the amount is only 7% off). This, in addition to the ample amount of time and effort the record shows the Wood River Township board spent on the Wood River Township Assessor's budget, hardly comes close to an abuse of discretion."
Kochan said she was "very disappointed" in the decision.
She said she filed the lawsuit to restore funds that paid for two part time field workers. She said her budget was the only one cut at the time and the only one that did not receive a 3% salary increase.
Township assessors are responsible for estimating the market value or fair cash value of most properties within a township for use in the Illinois property tax system. The Wood River Township Assessor's office employs six full time workers.
Madison County Board Member Tom McRae, who served as a trustee when the decision to cut the assessor's budget from $273,000 to $233,850 was made, said it was done because of payroll irregularities. He said Kochan had "gifted" significant paid time off to employees in her office. That time off was over and above the employee's allotted 12 paid holidays and fully paid vacation time, he said.
McRae said concerns first surfaced when it was determined that the assessor's office was closed during normal business hours, particularly on the eve of holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4th.
He said a "lengthy" investigation followed.
"We spent hours and hours on this matter," McRae said. "To be honest, it would have been easy for the township board and supervisor to have looked the other way as often happens in politics. I'm proud to say that we didn't take the easy way out and stood up for the taxpayer."
Kochan said the investigation was "totally, totally blown up."
She said her office was "stalked" and that cars in the assessor's parking lot were being counted.
On occasion, she said she would close the office for an hour and a half, rather than an hour, for birthday lunches.
"We posted it on the door and it was never at a busy time," she said. "It's been done forever."
Kochan has worked in the office for 34 years. She said that long lunches and closing the office early before holidays was "nothing that hasn't been done before."
She said other township offices close early before holidays, not just the assessor's.
Kochan was first elected assessor in 2001 and has run unopposed in successive elections. Her current four-year term ends in 2013.
She said she respects the office.
"Taking care of the taxpayers is my main objective," she said.
Attorneys James Craney and Bob Carter, as well as the township attorney Don Weber, represented the township in the matter.
McRae said that for the investigation, the attorneys capped fees at $10,000, which was paid for by the township. He said he did not know how much it cost to defend Kochan's lawsuit.
Kochan said she spent more than $10,000 of personal funds to bring the lawsuit. She was represented by William Stiehl, Jr. of Belleville.
She criticized the $10,000 expenditure for the payroll investigation.
She also claims she wasn't given a fair opportunity to present her side of things in the lawsuit.
"We were not given a chance to speak our peace," she said.