They are arguably the two most hated words in a homeowner’s vocabulary: property taxes. Nobody likes them and no one wants to pay them, including 87- year-old Joan Planos.

The long-time Evanston resident and her son, Rick, say they recently hit a brick wall with the Cook County Assessor’s office while trying to figure out why Joan’s property tax bills were out of whack.

“For years the property taxes were escalating at a crazy rate and my mom just assumed that was the standard procedure and it wasn’t until it finally got so out of hand that we dug in about a year and a half ago,” Rick Planos recalled.

That’s when Rick Planos saw three little digits on the bill he had never noticed before.

“It says 2-04,” Rick Planos said. “I didn’t even know what the numbers meant.”

The mysterious numbers turned out to be property classification codes that relate to the size of a house. For years, Joan Planos’ bill accurately read 2-03, which is the code for a smaller home like hers, under 1,800 square feet. Somehow that code got upped one little digit associated with a bigger home.

“I mean, we would have all loved the extra square footage growing up with four kids, but you know we would never have known that if we didn’t say, ‘Wait, why are these bills getting so high?’” Rick Planos said.

That one digit mistake was traced back to a field visit from the Cook County Assessor’s office in 2010, when Joan says, unseen by her, a county employee stood on her curb and marked her attic as a finished living space. Without ever entering the home.

“That’s ridiculous. They should have come in to do a visual check. That’s my feeling,” Joan Planos told NBC 5 Responds.

That error increased the square footage on paper, which in turn increased the assessed value of the home for several years, and the tax bill.

“I’m sure there’s an easy fix, and then I fell into a bottomless pit of bureaucracy,” Rick Planos said.

What should have been simple, according to Planos, turned into a year and a half of appeals, unanswered questions and no money back.

“The burden of proof should not be on me to prove I don’t have a bigger house,” Rick Planos said. “It was nothing that we did and now we’re not getting any of that overpayment back.”

NBC 5 Responds looked into the Planos’ complaint and asked the Assessor’s office to re-examine the case.

“NBC 5’s involvement has been very beneficial because it put some light on this individual case,” Deputy Assessor of Communications, Tom Shaer said.

The county office acknowledged Joan Planos’ house had been misclassified, and first told us she would get a $5,000 refund. A few days later, that offer was cut in half.

“A closer examination of the data showed he was entitled to approximately $2,500,” Shaer said. “We had a choice: we could have left it in place and not disappointed the taxpayer, or we could have changed the payout to $2,500 instead of $5,000. We under no circumstances will ever withhold from a taxpayer money they’re entitled to. But we also won’t give a taxpayer money they’re not entitled to because that takes it out of the pockets of other taxpayers,” Shaer explained.

In the end, Rick Planos met with the Assessor’s office and got all his questions thoroughly answered.

“Now I can see that even though magically the house got bigger it never really got charged more,” Rick Planos said.

The reason: the Assessor’s office overlooked that square footage mistake for a few years. The office says that error has now been fixed, and Joan Planos should get her $2,500 check sometime in April.

Published at 11:06 PM CDT on Mar 22, 2017 | Updated at 11:20 PM CDT on Mar 22, 2017

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