Esther vs. Goliath


by Mike Kroll

Forty-odd years ago someone would have written a folk song about the saga of Esther Moore. While it’s anyone’s guess whether or not he can sing or play the guitar but in another time and place City Assessor Darrel Lovell might well have launched a new career-- pleading the case of a 73-year old Galesburg woman who, to all appearances, is being victimized by a heartless bureaucracy -- singing to a somber melody.

Esther slowly shakes her head in disgust as she struggles to breath through one of those long portable air hoses attached to an oxygen tank; she was released from the hospital earlier Tuesday and suffers from emphysema. We sat in her living room at 1425 East Losey Street as she relates how Joseph Meyer, a tax consultant hired by Knox County, paid her a visit during the Christmas holidays.

Her lot on the northeast corner of Losey and Phillips Streets wasn’t properly described in Knox County’s official records. It seems that a section eight feet wide and 198 feet long adjacent to the sidewalk on the Phillips Street side doesn’t legally belong to Ms. Moore. Esther remembers Meyer’s conduct as "rude, inconsiderate and pushy" as he pressured her to "pay up" to obtain legal ownership of this parcel. While she has lived in this home for over 45 years now, raised her family and lost her husband all the while her family tended 1,584 square feet of lawn that doesn’t appear to belong to anyone. Ester and her family always assumed that this was part of their lot; but legally it isn’t.

Meyer’s job is to clean up the county’s records and help Knox County collect back taxes from property owners who have avoided payment. According to reports from Knox County officials such as Treasurer Robin Davis he "has been doing a great job." He has found many record problems and tracked down delinquent property owners to help Knox County obtain every possible penny due in property taxes. For a county that is perpetually in fiscal distress this would on the face of things appear to be a good thing. But life is seldom so conveniently simple.

The origin of Esther Moore’s discrepancy goes way, way back–reportedly to 1896. Whatever may be the cause the western-most eight feet of what was always presumed to be the Moore lot has no owner of legal record. While it has been said by some that this is a freak occurrence that hardly seems to be the case in Knox County. According to Chris Gray of the Knox County Supervisor of Assessments’ office a total of 24 such "freak" parcels have been unearthed, seven within the Galesburg city limits. These mystery parcels vary from small slivers to complete lots (including a nearly three acre parcel) and even a cemetery.

In Ms. Gray’s judgment most of these parcels have little market value for a variety of reasons. A number of landlocked and inaccessible without making arrangement with neighboring property owners and many are simply too small to be of stand-alone value. Most of the properties would be of value solely to an owner of one of the adjacent properties. In the case of two parcels an adjacent property owner is assuming ownership by accepting responsibility of property taxes. Esther was offered this option but declined.

When City of Galesburg Township Assessor Lovell first became aware of Ms. Moore’s plight he immediately took up her cause. Lovell spoke to Knox County officials and County Board members in January to seek some kind of arrangement whereby the county would simply deed the land over to Esther. According to both Lovell and Esther at one point in time Knox County Board Chair Sally Keener was sympathetic and agreed to help foster such an arrangement. Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri was quoted in the Peoria Journal Star on May 30th acknowledging that the parcel had no real market value, except to Ms. Moore.

When the matter came before the Knox County Board in June Lovell and Moore expected it to sail through. Both believed that a sufficient number of the county board members supported simply selling the parcel to Esther for a token sum. Their vote count was off. Only three of the 15 Knox County board members supported Esther’s request, Dale Parsons, Gayle Kaiser and Steve Johnson. The remaining board members balked at taking an action many believed would establish a costly precedent.

"That argument against helping Ms. Moore doesn’t make sense," explained Kaiser. "This is principally a shortcoming of the county’s own records in not properly identifying the owner of this parcel. This parcel is hardly marketable to anyone else, unless the City intends to construct a lemonade stand or something there, and it is in the best interest of the tax payers that it be returned to the tax rolls. We should simply deed the parcel over to Ms. Moore and make the appropriate and fair adjustment to her property’s assessed value. Under past county board leadership this would have been viewed as simply housekeeping."

Kaiser’s logic does seem compelling while the County Board’s present course of action seems unlikely to resolve the matter anytime soon. County officials are determined that Esther pay $450 to buy the parcel. This value is determined by calculating the costs involved with hiring Meyer but bears no resemblance at all to the negligible market value of the parcel itself. If Esther doesn’t purchase the parcel (and she is adamantly opposed to doing so) who else would want it? By selling it to Esther for a token sum the county’s property records get cleaned up and a small additional pittance would be collected in property taxes next year.

As far as establishing a precedent is concerned whatever action the County Board takes must recognize that this is hardly a one size fits all proposition. The many parcels that have little market value can and probably should be treated just as Esther’s, not only because it’s the fair thing to do but also because it is a responsible means of "housekeeping." If the strategic goal is to correct errors in the property ownership records of the county and maximize assessed valuation then the county’s current tactics appear doomed to failure.

When the county puts these parcels up for auction later this month it seems unlikely that most will sell at the arbitrarily high minimum bid values calculated to cover the cost of Mr. Meyer’s services as was the $450 price for Esther’s disputed parcel. Is the county really better served by going to the expense of conducting an auction that is virtually guaranteed to fail in selling most of the mystery parcels? Any parcel that can reasonably be expected to generate competitive bidding should be auctioned off in an absolute auction while the remaining parcels will most likely remain in ownership limbo unless the Knox County Board changes those tactics.

By the way, Esther is emphatic that she will not pay but a token amount for this parcel. After all, she figures that 45 years of maintenance is surely worth at least ten dollars per year. But that record of maintenance has now come to an end. After the June Knox County Board meeting Esther telephoned the boy who mows her yard and instructed him to cease mowing the 8x198 strip of land next to her sidewalk. "If it’s not mine I’ll be damned if I’ll continue taking care of it on the county’s behalf!"