You pay more in property taxes because 27,288 Cook County homeowners pay nothing
As disabled vets, Sen. Tammy Duckworth and former Ald. James Balcer are among those with tax bills of $0. Income isn’t a factor in getting the tax break for disabled vets. In some states, it is.
No one likes to pay property taxes. This year, the owners of 27,288 homes across Cook County don’t have to.
Their property tax bills: $0.
That they’re paying nothing means the rest of the county’s 1.8 million property taxpayers — the remaining homeowners and business owners — have to pick up the slack, a total of just under $102.8 million.
The pay-nothing bills result from a host of property tax exemptions the Illinois General Assembly has given homeowners over the years. The biggest tax breaks go to homeowners 65 and older and disabled veterans.
Among the homeowners whose property taxes are entirely wiped off the books because they are disabled veterans are U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, former Ald. James Balcer and some veterans who are now Chicago police officers, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.
The $102 million-plus is a sliver of the $1.5 billion in all real estate tax exemptions granted to Cook County homeowners this year as a result of six types of property tax breaks the Illinois Legislature has established.
And what one homeowner ends up not having to pay as a result of those exemptions means that the rest of Cook County’s property owners have to cover a bigger share of the $16.1 billion in property taxes billed countywide to pay for schools and other government operations in Chicago and suburban Cook County.
“What we have done is to create all special sorts of categories — veterans, disabled people, senior citizens,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago tax watchdog group. “And all of those exemptions administered by the county basically undermine the integrity of the property tax system.
“We grant people relief regardless of their income situation, and the rest of the community has to pay more,” Msall says. “It’s unfair. It’s very hard to monitor. And it’s hard to authenticate who’s getting the value. Is it the needy people? Or is it a large giveaway?”
Duckworth — the state’s highest-profile combat veteran — hasn’t had to pay any property taxes since 2015 on the home she and her husband own in Hoffman Estates.
Over the past six years, her tax breaks have totaled $42,479 — $4,637 from the homeowner exemption that nearly every homeowner receives and $37,842 under a tax break Illinois legislators passed in 2015 for veterans who have been certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as being at least 70% disabled.
Without those exemptions, the Democratic senator and her husband would have had to pay $6,920 in taxes this year on their three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot home, which Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi values at $252,250.
Duckworth and other Illinois veterans certified by the VA as 70% disabled don’t have to pay anything in property taxes this year if the assessor valued their homes at no higher than $775,000 last year.
For those whose homes are valued by the assessor’s office higher than that, the law gives disabled vets steep tax cuts. That has resulted in minuscule tax bills even for some who live in wealthy communities like the Gold Coast and Winnetka, the Sun-Times found.
The exemption is good for the rest of a disabled vet’s life, though it has to be reapplied for every year, with certification from the VA that the vet remains at least 30% disabled. When the vet dies, the vet’s surviving spouse can continue to collect the benefit unless the spouse remarries.
And, unlike some states, Illinois doesn’t put a limit on household income for veterans and their spouses to be eligible.
Duckworth, 53, who gets a salary of $174,000 a year as a senator, first qualified for the tax exemption while she was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. She uses a wheelchair after losing both legs when she was shot down in Iraq in 2004 while piloting a helicopter for the Illinois Army National Guard. She was awarded a Purple Heart. Her husband Bryan Bowlsbey, who also served in the National Guard, retiring with the rank of major, works for a cybersecurity company.
Duckworth and Bowlsbey also have a second house — a six-bedroom, 4,100-square-foot brick home with an in-ground pool in McLean, Virginia, about half an hour from the U.S. Capitol — that they bought in 2017 for $1.3 million.
Her memoir “Every Day Is A Gift” brought her more than $300,000 in royalties in 2019 and also in 2020.
Duckworth and her husband do pay property taxes on their Virginia home, for which they were billed $16,351 this year.
Like Illinois, Virginia offers a property tax exemption for disabled vets. To get it, though, the law in that state would require Duckworth to declare that her primary residence, which she couldn’t do while representing Illinois in the Senate.
Duckworth didn’t respond to interview requests. Asked about the property tax exemption at a public appearance Friday in Ravenswood, she told reporters, “I’m surprised that someone would question veterans who have been wounded in service to their nation in a combat zone accessing benefits.”
Her Senate spokesman Ben Garmisa says the senator gets the same benefit that any similarly disabled vet could get.
Illinois “offers this benefit to all veterans with service-connected disabilities above a 70% rating,” he says. “Sen. Duckworth has always believed that everyone should pay their fair share in taxes and that those who served this nation in uniform deserve and should claim the benefits they earned.”
Among the proof required to receive the tax break for disabled vets in Illinois is a letter from the VA spelling out the percentage of a vet’s service-related disability. To get that rating, vets must provide the VA with proof from private or military doctors of three things: a current physical or mental health problem; an injury, disease or exposure to something toxic that occurred while they were in the military; and evidence that the current health problem stems from something that happened while in the service.
Qualifying conditions can include chronic back pain, severe hearing loss, scar tissue or ulcers as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injuries.
“Military service is very difficult on the body, so a lot of vets who end up with 20 years will end up with a number of conditions stacked together,” says David Eckert, chief of the VA’s Schedule for Rating Disabilities regulations. “And 100% disability doesn’t mean that veteran isn’t able to do anything.”
For instance, sleep apnea that’s treated with a breathing machine “wouldn’t prevent you from working during the day” and would rate a 50% disability, according to Eckert.
Multiple conditions can be combined to determine the percentage of disability, and that percentage is rounded to the nearest 10th, from 0 to 100%. So, for instance, if an Illinois veteran’s conditions add up to a 65% disability rating, the rating would be rounded up to 70% — enough to not have to pay property taxes.
Balcer, the former 11th Ward alderman whose Bridgeport home is valued at $542,810 by the county assessor, is another of the disabled vet homeowners in Cook County who pay no property taxes on their homes.
Balcer, 71, enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and later was commended for bravery. He was wounded as a teenager in 1969 when his company came under fire in Laos, and he led efforts to rescue trapped fellow Marines. His combat tour began in 1968, and he was sent home after being wounded.
“I have been treated for PTSD and other disabilities,” Balcer says. “PTSD and vertigo forced me out of my job as an alderman. I realized I needed treatment, and I’ve been going for seven years now” to the VA.
In 2001, then-Ald. Balcer was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery for carrying wounded comrades to safety in February 1969. He also received three Purple Hearts.
Since retiring from City Hall in 2015, Balcer has been collecting a pension topping $100,000 a year based on his final aldermanic annual salary of $117,333.
Asked whether he thinks the property tax break for disabled vets should be tied to an income limit as it is in some states, Balcer says, “That’s a tough one for me to answer. Myself, I go to the VA. I paid a heavy price being in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Bernard Banks, who retired from the Army at the rank of brigadier general, is another vet who benefits from the same tax break, though he does pay some taxes. Banks, who is an associate dean at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, owns a two-story home on Sheridan Road near Lake Michigan in Evanston. Kaegi places a value on the 5,286-square-foot house at just over $1 million.
When Banks bought the house in 2017, the tax bill was close to $30,000. But thanks to his disabled veterans and homeowner exemptions, Banks’ tax bill was $5,436 this year. He understands that might upset other taxpayers because, when one homeowner gets a break, others have to pay more to cover that to keep schools and local governments running.
“Our state is a hurt locker when it comes to taxes,” says Banks, who has relied on the disabled vets exemption to lower his property taxes for three years. “I get why we have the conversation. This was not designed as a loophole. You can’t game your [VA] rating.”
After 30 years in the Army, Banks has a disability rating of at least 70%.
“I’m an inch shorter than when I joined the Army from carrying heavy packs, jumping out of airplanes,” Banks says. “I did a lot of things that took a toll on my body. I’m not carrying a cane, but I certainly have back issues. Tinnitus. One of my thumbs is super-impacted. My big toe, I can’t flex it.
“It’s a very complex system, how the VA assigns the rating,” he says. “Flat feet could be 50%.”
Banks says he supports the tax breaks that Illinois and other states give veterans not just on property taxes but also on such things as hunting and fishing licenses.
“People are applying for benefits that were accorded to them in recognition of their service to the nation and in recognition of the toll that service did to their body,” he says.
Another vet who benefits from the exemption is Travis R. Coburn, a Chicago police officer who is in his 30s and lives in Edgebrook. Coburn is one of five Chicago cops the Sun-Times identified who didn’t have to pay any property taxes this year because the VA determined they are at least 70% disabled.
Coburn and his wife saved $10,373 in property taxes this year, the bulk of that because of his disability exemption.
Coburn, who, according to the city, has a yearly salary of $84,564, declined to comment.
Records show he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2007, got a bachelor’s degree, and worked for other police departments before getting hired by the Chicago Police Department in August 2014.
The police department didn’t respond to questions.
In Illinois, homeowners can combine exemptions to lower their property tax bills, say by claiming the homeowner exemption and, for those over 65 whose household income is under $65,000, the senior freeze exemption, which freezes the value of their homes even if prices in their neighborhood go up.
Other exemptions can lower tax bills. And more people claim the senior freeze. But only the disabled vets exemption can immediately zero out an entire tax bill.
A total of 6,083 homeowners in Cook County who take the disabled vets exemption pay nothing in property taxes. That collectively saves them $33.1 million — or about $5,450, on average, per property.
A total of 17,829 homeowners who claim the senior freeze pay nothing in property taxes. That collectively saves them $24.5 million — or about $1,375, on average, per property.
As a disabled vet who’s over 65, Kurt Unter, the founder of BrewSmart Beverage, a coffee company, gets four exemptions that have erased what he otherwise would have to pay in property taxes on the 3,244-square-foot home on a 14,574-square-foot lot in Palatine for the past five years. This year, that has saved him $14,309.
Unter’s home is valued by Kaegi’s office at $447,280. The breakdown on how he cut his tax bill to zero goes like this: $993 saved as a result of the homeowner exemption, $794 from the exemption for seniors, $2,928 thanks to the senior freeze and $9,594 from the disabled vets exemption.
Without the sort of income ceiling that some states have imposed, Illinois’ disabled vets can end up having to pay nothing in property taxes even on mansions.
Like Dean Ebert, a retired Marine who is a vice president of defense contractor Northrup Grumman. Ebert doesn’t pay any taxes on the 5,900-square-foot Georgian home in Barrington that he bought for $1.9 million in 2019. The house — which Kaegi values at $698,520 — sits on 4.4 acres and is on a lake. Ebert, who couldn’t be reached, moved there with his wife from a 4,000-square-foot home in Los Angeles County.
Others end up with just a tiny tax bill. Like Adam DeSantis, 33, a lawyer who is an associate with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP and served six years in the Army, according to his LinkedIn profile.
DeSantis, who declined to comment, and his wife own a Lake View condo the assessor’s office values at $832,960. A disabled vet’s exemption saved the couple $17,728 in taxes this year, leaving them with a tax bill of $587.
In the south suburbs, where tax bills have been high for years, Air Force veteran Endrell Rucker and his wife bought a new home in Flossmoor last year for $480,000, knowing they wouldn’t have to pay any property taxes on it. While working for the VA in Georgia, Rucker says he had qualified for a similar program that cut his property taxes there.
“It definitely made housing more affordable, especially in Flossmoor,” Rucker says, where “taxes are considerably higher than living in the city. So it was definitely a motivator to come back” to the Chicago area.
Rucker, 45, declined to describe his disability but says the VA rated him at 100%.
“I’ve retired due to disability,” he says. “So I’m not currently working a 9-to-5 or anything like that. My wife is the breadwinner.”
The homeowner with a zeroed-out property tax bill who saves the most money as a result of the disabled vets exemption is Jesse Miller. A Country Club Hills resident, Miller would have to pay more than $32,000 in property taxes on his home, which the assessor’s office values at $422,370, if not for the tax break.
If not for the disabled veterans exemption, Miller’s property taxes would have more than doubled since he bought the six-bedroom, brick home less than a decade ago for $175,000.
“It’s really distressing to see they raised the local property taxes like that,” says Miller, who declines to discuss his military service or disability. “A lot of vets couldn’t afford a home without this program. So it’s a really good program.”
When the Illinois Legislature first gave a property tax break to disabled veterans a decade ago, it saved them just a few thousand dollars.
Then, in 2015, state Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park, got the Legislature to approve a much more generous break. It eliminated property taxes altogether for many with at least a 70% disability rating, and provided for smaller discounts for those 30% to 70% disabled. The measure was signed into law by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican.
That law wiped out the tax bill on the Wilmette home of Stephen Curda, a 30-year Army veteran, who Rauner later appointed to run the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Because of the exemption, Curda hasn’t paid taxes since 2017 on the five-bedroom, two-story home, which the assessor values at $656,190. This year, that saved him $16,769 in property taxes.
Curda, who no longer runs the state veterans agency, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
DO YOUR NEIGHBORS PAY PROPERTY TAXES?
It’s easy to check anyone’s property taxes in Cook County.
Go to the Cook County Property Tax Portal — https://www.cookcountypropertyinfo.com — and enter the address you’re interested in.
That will bring up tax records including the property tax bills for the past five years. There’s also a link to see the property tax history for 20 years.
You’ll also see the market value placed on the property by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and its tax rate.
Click on the tax calculator button, and you can see how much the property owner paid — and saved as a result of property tax exemptions like those available to homeowners, senior citizens and disabled veterans.
DO YOU QUALIFY FOR A TAX BREAK?
Residential properties in Cook County received $1.5 billion in tax breaks on their tax bills due this month.
Just over one million properties got at least one tax exemption.
|Exemption||Total value||Number of properties claiming|
|Senior freeze exemption||$263,238,193||143,124|
|Disabled veterans exemption||$35,828,636||8,542|
|Disabled persons exemption||$4,450,421||20,889|
|Returning veterans exemption||$25,450||54|