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City Leaders Question Property Assessments Of Milwaukee Residents

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Alderman Mark Borkowski says he’s been inundated with calls from constituents saying their assessments have risen dramatically and they fear that will signal a steep rise in property taxes.";

COVID-19 has turned our economy upside down. While Milwaukee leaders are trying to figure out how to fund the city’s budget and continue providing services, many residents worry how far their funds will stretch.

On Monday, the Judiciary and Legislation Committee spent most of the afternoon discussing a proposal to freeze property assessment at last year’s level until further notice.

Alderman Mark Borkowski is sponsoring the resolution. He urged fellow alderpersons to vote through a freeze.

“Now is not the time to be insensitive because people have lost their jobs, they’ve lost income,” Borkowski says.

Borkowski says he’s been inundated with calls from constituents saying their assessments have risen dramatically, fearing that will signal a steep rise in property taxes.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic echoed Borkowski’s concern. She read from a constituent’s letter.

"My 2019 assessment was $224,000; my 2020 assessment is $338,000. My home is 100 years old, my furnace is 46 years old and my roof is 15 years old. I have lost my job due to COVID-19. I am facing unemployment with millions of others.”

Dimitrijevic is among a cadre of alderpersons who believe residents should have more time to challenge their 2020 property assessment. The deadline is on May 18.

"The least we can do is an extra 30 days for those appeals to be filed,” Dimitrijevic says.

Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye
Milwaukee Assessment Commissioner Steve Miner told Judiciary and Legislation Committee members on Monday that property values change at different rates. Miner says his office's goal is to have the assessed value match the property's market value.

But Milwaukee Assessment Commissioner Steve Miner says the deadline can’t be changed without legislative action.

"The [state] statutes define the deadline and that May 18 deadline and I’m probably going to bring that date up again, because it’s really an important date in the city of Milwaukee, not the rest of the county, it’s just Milwaukee that gets this deadline,” Miner says. “All we need at this point is your name, your address and a statement that you want to appeal your assessment. Done! You can do that on the website, you can do it through email, through a letter, you can drop it off at our front door.”

Alderwoman Milele Coggs wants a streamlined method for residents to file challenges online. But she expressed fundamental concerns about the city assessment operation.

"For me, this isn’t just a one-year thing; it’s been for the last several years. I truly have people worrying about being displaced from their homes. And if there is a way, or this is something that we have done or have not done within that accessor’s office that could help some people from being displaced, then it’s incumbent upon us to do that,” Coggs says.

When Milwaukee initiated annual assessments in 2002, Miner told the committee that 45 appraisers worked in his department. That number has dwindled 26.

Miner outlined the assessment process, explaining how his team crunches data and laying out a 2020 overview. But Alderman Nik Kovac wasn’t satisfied.

Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye
Committee Chair Alderman Ashanti Hamilton at Monday's meeting that ended with more questions than answers about the accuracy of 2020 City of Milwaukee property assessments.

"I know from the back looking in, something is wrong. I wouldn’t have known in advance going in something I wrong. When I look at my neighbors and all the neighborhoods I represent that have been assessed, something is deeply wrong this year,” Kovac says. “Was it always wrong? That’s what we have to figure out.”

While the committee waits for answers from the city assessor’s office, the statutory clock keeps ticking.  

Committee chair Alderman Ashanti Hamilton says it’s not yet clear whether Milwaukee’s common council has the power to issue a freeze.

If so, it would only apply to residential, not commercial properties — another source, Hamilton says, of potential conflict.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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