‘Senior freeze’ tax errors exposed by Sun-Times could delay property tax bills
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough tells county Assessor Fritz Kaegi she won’t calculate tax rates till he fixes ‘major errors.’ Kaegi says she doesn’t have that authority.
Cook County property tax bills that were supposed to be delivered Aug. 1 could be delayed because of “major errors” the Chicago Sun-Times exposed in a $250 million-a-year program that offers a tax break to certain seniors.
In a letter Friday to Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough cited the newspaper’s reporting in warning there could be a delay in sending tax bills to Cook County’s 1.77 million property owners.
Yarbrough told Kaegi her office “will not begin its calculation of Tax Year 2020 second-installment tax rates until we have received corrected and accurate data . . . related to senior tax exemptions.
“Given the major errors with the Senior Citizens Assessment Freeze Homestead Exemption program revealed recently in the Chicago Sun-Times, we cannot in good conscience perform the aforementioned calculations pursuant to our fiduciary duty to the citizens of Cook County,” Yarbrough wrote.
If the bills go out late and that results in a delay in collecting property taxes, that would affect hundreds of school districts, municipalities and other government agencies in Cook County that rely on that money.
The Sun-Times reported June 27 that Kaegi’s office incorrectly calculated the value of the senior assessment freeze for many of the 144,904 homeowners receiving the tax break — a program that shifted $250 million in taxes last year from homeowners 65 or older claiming household income of less than $65,000 a year onto the rest of Cook County homeowners and businesses.
Among the errors, senior freezes had been granted in some cases to businesses, which aren’t eligible, and property assessments had been frozen based on the value of buildings that had been torn down years before.
Also, Kaegi cited a computer programming glitch he acknowledged gave further tax breaks to seniors who’d gotten refunds on taxes they’d previously paid.
Yarbrough pointed to the program’s aim of helping “a targeted, vulnerable population,”writing: “This demographic’s vulnerability increases dramatically when they are people of color. They deserve to be protected and not subjected to the exploitation that precipitates from an inefficacious government program.”
Deciding what homeowners and businesses pay in property taxes in Cook County involves three agencies, each headed by an elected county official. The assessor, Kaegi, sets the value of each property. The clerk, Yarbrough, calculates each property’s share of the taxes needed to bring in enough to cover government budgets. The treasurer, Maria Pappas, mails the bills and collects the taxes.
Pappas also is asking that any errors in assessments or exemptions be fixed so she can tell taxpayers when they will have to pay their final bill this year.
“When a taxpayer receives an excessive tax break, everybody else must make up the difference,” Pappas wrote in a letter Thursday to Kaegi. “I am concerned that these errors will persist and result in continued inequities for our residents and our businesses. It is crucial that these bills be fair and accurate.”
Kaegi’s spokesman Scott Smith says the assessor’s office has corrected some errors the Sun-Times found.
Among those: correcting a property assessment that resulted in a tax bill last year of only $2,502 for a Water Tower Place condominium whose owners are listing it for sale — at $3.3 million.
The assessor will reset the base year of the frozen assessment on the Water Tower Place condo, according to Smith, likely resulting in a significantly higher tax bill.
Kaegi’s office is still investigating to determine whether the annual income of the owners, Barbara Kaplan and Martin Israel, qualifies them for the exemption.
Smith says Kaegi’s staff provided Yarbrough’s office with up-to-date assessments Wednesday for all 1.7 million properties in Cook County.
“This doesn’t mean that we won’t, in the future, find someone that doesn’t qualify for the exemption,” Smith says. “There is a process to claw back exemptions from people who don’t qualify for them.”
After the Sun-Times story was published, Smith says Kaegi’s office reviewed the assessments of the properties the newspaper cited and also others that reporters had asked about.
But the office didn’t review all 144,904 properties that now have a senior assessment freeze.
“This analysis revealed that the majority of the [properties] were calculated correctly,” Smith says. “Some senior freeze exemptions in the story do not conform to our office’s current policy for the administration of the senior freeze exemption. In these cases, those exemptions have either been changed or removed for the 2020 exemption roll. The Erroneous Exemption Department is currently investigating the [properties] mentioned in the Sun-Times story that may have erroneously received exemptions.”
Smith later released a letter from Kaegi to Yarbrough that challenges her authority to delay the property tax process. It cites an appellate court ruling that “a clerk has no power to determine whether taxes have been legally assessed.”