You might as well be the judge.
Nobody else will.
When Walmart bought land in Silvis about five years ago, nearby property values shot way up, into the millions.
In a column in August, we learned about one businessman who lost it all because of an impossible 600 percent jump in his land value and a near six-digit tax bill. After a little digging, we now learn another Walmart neighbor had quite a different experience. Interestingly, the second businessman, Hampton Township Assessor Jim Cramblett, gets to set his own tax bill.
Kurt Kretchman was running a driving range and modest pro shop on part of the 30 acres he bought along John Deere Expressway in 1994. In 2007, the year before Walmart arrived, business was steady. The $265,000 land deal was paid off, and he was debt free. Protential Golf Center would be Kretchman's retirement account.
When he learned his acreage suddenly was valued by Hampton Township Assessor Jim Cramblett at $3.2 million — the same Walmart paid for its 30 acres — the former golf pro figured he was sitting pretty. He could sell off a chunk and make a tidy profit.
But his new tax bill delivered more sobering news: It went from $16,000 in 2007 to just shy of $100,000 in 2008.
He tried and tried to sell, but no one was interested — even when he lowered the price to less than one-third of what Cramblett said it was worth. He had to borrow to pay his property taxes. And he kept borrowing. The 600 percent increase in his property value was costing him hundreds of thousands in taxes.
He repeatedly went back to Cramblett, begging for relief. Couldn't he see that he was wrong? Even if his land had been worth millions the day Walmart bought next door, the economy was in the toilet, and no one was buying.
Ultimately, Kretchman lost it all, and Protential went back to the bank. Naturally, he was outraged.
During a summer interview, shortly after the bank finally sold the land for $685,000, Kretchman said something that seemed rhetorical at the time:
"Raising the value of land by 600 percent when a guy hasn't made a single improvement should be against the law," he said. "If somebody built the Taj Mahal next door to your house, is your house now worth several million?"
It appears the answer is: It depends on who owns it.
As it turns out, Cramblett, the assessor who raised Kretchman's property value by 600 percent, also owns property that neighbors Walmart. His restaurant, long-known as the Pauper's Den (now Thai Basils), is across Illinois 5 from Walmart. Even closer to Cramblett's restaurant is a Sonic restaurant, which was built on a Walmart outlot in 2008.
In conversations about how he arrived at the new property value for Kretchman's land, Cramblett explained, "Law in Illinois requires you to look at the land as if vacant, then add buildings."
But something must have changed between valuing Kretchman's land and valuing his own.
Today's county assessment records show the land for the Sonic restaurant that was built across John Deere Expressway from Cramblett's restaurant is worth $180,046. The Sonic lot size is 46,460 square feet. Cramblett's lot size is 43,346 square feet. Pretty close. But his land is valued at $68,583.
Cramblett's restaurant, which has undergone considerable interior and exterior remodeling in recent years, is 2,400 square feet. The Sonic building is 1,712 square feet and is valued at $121,384. Cramblett's larger building is valued at $69,670.
The combined land and building valuation at Sonic is $301,430. At Cramblett's restaurant, it's $123,138.
Cramblett was asked how this could be. Shouldn't his property in the Walmart corridor — across from Sonic — be similarly valued? If Kretchman's driving-range land was worth the same amount of money that Walmart was willing to pay, shouldn't his restaurant be worth whatever Sonic was willing to pay?
"I don't have access to the expressway," Cramblett said. "They (Sonic) are right on 5 and right in front of Walmart.
"It's difficult to turn left out of my place. Mine is on Crosstown (Avenue), and it's not the same thing."
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Beyond the differences in driveway access, he said the equations he uses are complicated and said he could not precisely "defend" his valuation.
But shouldn't someone be able to explain, given the disparity that seems apparent here?
"I couldn't have a conversation about this," Chief Rock Island County Assessor Larry Wilson said. "I have no jurisdiction over them (assessors), per se."
How about Rock Island County Board chairman Phil Banaszek?
"Honestly, I'd have to do some checking to see what role, if any, the chairman has," he said. Several hours later, he added, "I learned a township assessor is pretty much his own boss and doesn't have to answer to anybody."
And how does Kretchman feel about all of this?
"Are you kidding?" he asked. "It's deplorable. It's another ripoff, as far as I'm concerned. Is this fraud? What is this? Is it a conflict of interest?"
Wilson, the chief assessor who is not to be confused with being Cramblett's boss, assured it is not a conflict.
"There are no provisions in the Property Tax Code that would not allow a township assessor to value their own property," he wrote in an email last week.
The annual tax bill at Sonic is $26,839.36, according to county records. For the assessor's restaurant, it's $11,601.24.
Location, location, vocation.