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Chicago Gravel Co. v. Rosewell





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Earl Arkiss, Judge, presiding.


This appeal requires us to determine whether a taxpayer who pays all real property tax bills sent to it, with no actual knowledge of any error in those tax bills, can be subjected to back taxes claimed as a result of the taxing authorities' error. Plaintiff, Chicago Gravel Company (Chicago Gravel), owns certain real estate in Cook County, comprised of a gravel pit and abutting property. The practice of the assessor is to arbitrarily divide this contiguous property into a variety of tax parcels. The tax parcels are then given a permanent index number (PIN), which, pursuant to statute, becomes a legal description of the property. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 120, par. 511.) In the plaintiff's case, its contiguous property was divided into over 20 parcels.

In 1967, the plaintiff, under threat of condemnation, sold a portion of its property to the Metropolitan Sanitary District. Subsequent to the sale, the assessor divided some of the parcels which it conveyed and created a new two-tiered PIN system. Part of the new system marked some parcels "exempt" for the land sold, and the balance was given two new PINs for parcels subject to taxation, one of which is PIN 06-30-100-008 (PIN 008), the parcel in question.

In order to determine the taxes due, the assessor multiplied the number of acres involved times the property's assessed valuation per acre. During the tax years 1968 through 1977, the assessor assessed and the collector collected from Chicago Gravel real estate taxes on PIN 008. However, due to a clerical error in the assessor's office in copying the acreage of the property in question as 10.8 acres rather than 70.8 acres, PIN 008 was undertaxed. Three assessments occurred, one in 1968, one in 1973, and one in 1977, without discovery of the error. The error was first discovered when Chicago Gravel appealed the proposed valuations on all the parcels that it owned in 1978.

In 1978, the defendants began administrative backtax proceedings against Chicago Gravel for tax years 1968 through 1977. On September 12, 1979, Chicago Gravel filed a complaint to restrain the further assessment and collection of additional taxes on PIN 008. The trial court found that the property identified as PIN 008 was "omitted property" for the tax years 1968 through 1977; therefore, under Illinois law (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 120, par. 701), the collection of back taxes as well as interest and penalties was authorized.

In determining that the trial court erred in authorizing the assessment and collection of taxes on the 60 acres in question, the appellate court found the property not to be "omitted property," but "underassessed property." (118 Ill. App.3d 535, 538-39.) Since the court determined that the parcel was underassessed, pursuant to Illinois law (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 120, par. 701), the taxing authorities cannot collect back taxes, interest or penalties.

Section 220 of the Revenue Act of 1939 provides in pertinent part:

"If any real or personal property is omitted in the assessment of any year or number of years, so that the taxes thereon, for which such property was liable, have not been paid, or if any such property, by reason of defective description or assessment thereon, fails to pay taxes for any year or years, in either case the same property, when discovered, shall be listed and assessed by the board of review or, in the counties having a board of appeals, by the assessor either on his own initiative or when so directed by the board of appeals." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 120, par. 701.

The liability of the owner of property for the payment of taxes is purely statutory. The law is well settled that the legislative power of a State to provide for the levy and collection of taxes is unlimited, except as restricted by the State and Federal constitutions. (Chambers v. People ex rel. Fuller (1885), 113 Ill. 509, 523.) However, the obligation of the citizen to pay taxes is purely a statutory creation, and taxes can be levied, assessed and collected only in the manner authorized expressly by statute. People v. Sears (1931), 344 Ill. 189, 191.

In People ex rel. Schuler v. Chapman (1939), 370 Ill. 430, this court previously addressed the issue presented in the case at bar. In that case, a cipher was left out in transferring the assessed valuation of the parcel in question to the assessor's books, thus the taxpayer's assessment of $66,000 in previous years became $6,600 in the years in question. Taxes were levied and collected for each of these years based on the lower figure. When the error was discovered six years later, the trial court entered judgment for the sale of the property, finding that the undertaxed property should be deemed omitted for the years in question. This court reversed and remanded, holding that if property is not assessed at all, it may be assessed in later years as omitted property, but where an assessment has been made too low due to clerical error, it may not be reassessed in subsequent years as having been omitted. 370 Ill. 430, 440.

Here, a similar numerical error, namely the changing of 70.8 acres to 10.8 acres, demands a similar result. Although, as the defendants point out in their brief, the Chapman case dealt with the underassessment of improvements to property and the case at bar involves the assessment of the land itself, we cannot agree that this is a meaningful distinction. The principle of law is the same in both cases; property which has been assessed, and upon which taxes have been levied and paid in their entirety, even though the assessment through mistake was too low, may not be reassessed in a subsequent year as omitted.

The crux of the defendants' argument is that in Chapman this court held that all of the property was assessed, but at too low a level; whereas in the case at bar 60 acres of Chicago Gravel's property was never assessed. However, when this theory is viewed with the statutory mandate of the PIN system, an obvious flaw in the defendants' argument shines through. Section 30 of the Revenue Act of 1939 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 120, par. 511) defines the jurisdictional ambit of an index-number system in pertinent part:

"The real estate index number system shall describe real estate by township, section, block, and parcel or lot, the street or post office address, if any, and street code number * * *."

All of the aforementioned requirements appear on the property tax bills. Absent from the statutorily mandated criteria for the description of real estate in the assessor's PIN system, however, is any mention of "acres." Neither party contends that there was any error in the township, section, block, parcel or lot description. The assessor's error was a misnumbering of "acres," not a statutory part of the legal description as defined by section 30 of the Revenue Act of 1939. Therefore, the parcel in question, described and taxed as "Vol. 61, Hanover Township, S.E. Elgin, 06-03-100-008," was properly described. This ...

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