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No good reason now to slow the delivery of property tax bills in Cook County

The bills already will be late. There’s no need to make them later.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Do we really need Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough to throw a delay into the delivery of property bills that normally would be due Aug. 1?

No. Here’s hoping she doesn’t do it.

In a letter last week, Yarbrough threatened to further delay sending out Tax Year 2020 second-installment property tax bills until all errors are resolved in the Senior Citizens Assessment Freeze Homestead Exemption. Last month, the Sun-Times reported numerous mistakes had been made in calculating the property tax savings under the senior freeze program.

The tax bills are going out late in any case. Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office says COVID-19 issues were the culprit. Normally, the tax bills already would have been sent out, but by the time the Cook County Board of Review appeals process wrapped up, the deadline was blown.

To further delay the bills over the senior freeze issue, as Yarbrough suggests she will do, would unnecessarily snarl the budgets of school districts, municipalities and other local governments that depend on getting property tax revenues in a timely way. Kaegi says most of the erroneous senior freeze assessments were cleared up by July 7. The number of remaining ones still under investigation does not justify bringing the property tax system to a halt.

We’re proud that the Sun-Times’ investigative work has had such an impact, but we see no reason now, especially given the progress that’s been made, to delay getting tax bills out.

The senior freeze locks in property assessments on homes of people older than 65 with household incomes of no more than $65,000 a year. Over time, as assessments rise across the county, the freeze can lower seniors’ tax bills significantly. The Legislature created the freeze three decades ago as a way to keep seniors living on fixed incomes from seeing their property taxes shoot up in areas where property values are soaring. The value of the exemption makes it tempting for some individuals to claim it even if they don’t qualify.

It’s not clear Yarbrough has legal authority to further delay the tax bills. Her job is an administrative one. Her office gathers assessments and other pertinent information, calculates the tax bills and sends them on. It’s a time-consuming job because a single municipality might be broken up into various school districts and other local governments, each with its own tax rate.

The assessor’s office has an erroneous exemptions department that works year round to spot exemptions that have been improperly granted. That work goes on regardless of whether tax bills are delayed.

The various county officials involved in the property tax system should be working closely together to make sure the system works as smoothly as possible, not pointing fingers. If this squabbling escalates into legal battling, the Cook County state’s attorney would awkwardly find itself representing the county clerk, the county assessor and any other county officials who get involved. Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, for example, wrote a letter to Kaegi last week asking that all errors in the senior freeze program be resolved before data is turned over to the county clerk’s office.

In the past, tax bills routinely went out late, including in 2008, when a fight over an assessment tax cap delayed the billing cycle for months. When Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle took office in 2010, she made it a priority to get the tax bills out on time. That made life easier for officials of everything from park districts to library districts who depend on timely property tax revenue. When they don’t get the money, they often have to borrow money through tax anticipation warrants and pay interest, which gets passed on taxpayers as higher taxes or reduced services.

The property tax system is immensely complicated. If the county waited until every complaint were resolved and every appeal worked its way through the system, it would take years to get out the tax bills. At this point, it appears senior freezes were improperly granted using an outdated formula to no more than 0.2% of the 144,000 thousand properties in the county that receive a senior freeze, Kaegi’s office said. If one property obtains an unwarranted exemption, other property owners have to pay extra to make for it. But Kaegi’s office says the extra cost to an individual property owner in Cook County for improperly granted senior freeze exemptions is less than $1 and probably a lot less.

Kaegi has a duty to ensure the senior freeze calculations are correct. The other county officials have a responsibility to do their jobs and not pointlessly tie up the process.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial used the word “monkeywrench” to describe efforts to block county tax bills from being sent out. Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough reached out to the Sun-Times Editorial Board to complain that this word could be seen as a racial slur. The Editorial Board did not see or intend any such racial connotation, but we have deleted the word from this editorial.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.