Illinois’ budget standoff hit home for Rachel Grainer in a way she never would have anticipated.
The 79-year-old Oak Park woman, just home from a hospital stay, was shocked to receive a letter from her mortgage company in March demanding that Grainer immediately pay her overdue real estate taxes and threatening to force her to open an escrow account for future taxes.
Grainer thought there must be some mistake. That’s because she is among hundreds of Chicago area homeowners who participate in the state’s Senior Citizens Real Estate Tax Deferral Program.
Under the program, the state pays up to $5,000 a year toward the property taxes of participating homeowners 65 and older — in effect lending them the money at 6 percent interest.
The state gets repaid after the homeowner dies or the property is sold.
The purpose of the program, which is limited to seniors with an annual household income of less than $55,000, is to keep older residents from being forced out of their homes by rising property taxes.
But Grainer was among 290 Cook County residents whose taxes totaling $943,663 went unpaid last year because the state did not remit the money to the county as promised.
The reason: no state budget, therefore no legal authority for the Illinois Department of Revenue to make the payments, the same Catch 22 facing dozens of state programs during the impasse.
Grainer was aware of the state’s political problems, but she never expected them to affect her.
“I’m merrily going along, and then SOCKO,” said Grainer, a widow who has lived in her ranch home since 1971 and deferred her taxes since 2002.
Nearly 1,500 homeowners across Illinois participated in the tax-deferral program last year.
Those living outside Cook County were unaffected by the budget impasse because the state paid their taxes in June before the start of the new fiscal year.
But with no assurance the money will be forthcoming this June, county officials say they don’t know how to advise homeowners counting on the state to pay this year’s taxes.
“The state is not giving us any answers, so we can’t give the taxpayers any answers,” said Julie Shetina, deputy treasurer in Will County, where 94 homeowners use the program.
Legislators are aware of the problem. They tucked an $8 million appropriation for the tax-deferral program into a $700 million stopgap social services funding bill approved by the General Assembly earlier this month.
But Rauner has been noncommittal about signing the legislation, citing his preference for a comprehensive budget solution.
In the meantime, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas said she has suspended participation in the tax-deferral program and is not processing this year’s applications from homeowners.
“I will not process anything going forward until they pay me going backward,” Pappas said.
She said she can’t operate under the assumption the state will pay up.
“You can’t conduct a program when there’s no money for the program,” Pappas said. “No money, no program.”
Grainer said her problems with her mortgage company were ironed out with help from Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar and state Sen. Don Harmon.
“I was embarrassed to call the bank in Texas and try to explain Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan,” ElSaffar said.
I can see that. It’s tough enough to explain to people in Illinois.
In DuPage County, where 301 homeowners have been approved for participation in the program this year, County Treasurer Gwen Henry said she expects the state will come through with the money.
“I don’t want to alarm the seniors with the story,” she said.
I don’t want to alarm the seniors, either. I just want the state to cut the baloney and make good on its commitment to them.