Ald. Walter Burnett, wife wrongly claimed 2 homeowner tax exemptions for 8 years
Only 1 of the tax breaks, which is for someone’s primary residence, is allowed. Asked about that, the alderman wrote a check. It covers 4 years. That’s all the county can make him pay.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) and his wife Darlena Williams-Burnett for years have been claiming two homeowner property tax exemptions, one more than Illinois law allows, records show.
Taking the extra tax break — which the law limits to one home that people own and occupy as their principal place of residence — saved them $2,866 over the past four years. It’s unclear how much more they saved going back to 2013.
Available public records show the longtime Near West Side alderman and his wife, who’ve long bought and sold properties on the West Side, claimed the double tax exemption the past eight years on a home in the 1600 block of West Warren Boulevard, where they live, and on an investment property they own in the 4800 block of West Crystal Street.
Burnett, 57, says he wasn’t aware of the extra exemption, for the Crystal Street property, until asked about that by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.
“If we did it, we didn’t know we did it,” Burnett says. “We need to check that out. If that’s the case, we’ll pay it back.”
The taxes for the investment property are paid by their mortgage company, according to Burnett.
The alderman has disclosed his ownership of the red-brick bungalow on Crystal Street since at least 2014 on financial disclosure forms required by the city, describing it as an investment property.
He and his wife, a former Cook County commissioner who’s now deputy chief of facility fleet for the Chicago Housing Authority, are registered to vote at the two-story brick row home on Warren Boulevard.
The homeowner exemption for Crystal Street has been in Williams-Burnett’s name since at least 2013. The tax bill and exemption on Warren Boulevard are in the alderman’s name. Both tax bills go to Warren Boulevard, one addressed to Walter Burnett, the other to Darlena Burnett.
Burnett says his wife “didn’t remember applying for a homeowner’s exemption” for the Crystal Street property.
Within a day of being asked about the double exemptions, Burnett wrote a check for $3,217, which includes $351 interest on the outstanding taxes, according to Angelina Romero, a spokeswoman for Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi.
His payment covered the taxes owed on the Crystal Street house for four tax years — 2016 to 2019 — according to Romero, clearing his account with the county because the assessor’s office can go back only four years to collect on erroneous tax breaks.
And that means the extra exemption on the home from 2013 to 2015 saved the alderman, and his wife, 60, additional money, though Romero couldn’t say how much. Nor could her office locate the original application.
According to Romero, Kaegi’s erroneous exemptions department — 10 staffers whose job it is to ferret out such irregularities — already had flagged the Burnetts’ dual exemptions to look into and they were “scheduled to be investigated in the following months.”
Romero says the exemption on the Crystal Street house might have rolled over from the previous owner when the home was sold in 2012, when the assessor’s office was in the hands of Joseph Berrios.
Homeowner exemptions and other property tax benefits show up on the second installment of tax bills, which this year are set to be mailed later this month with payments due Oct. 1.
New homeowners are supposed to apply for the homeowner exemption the first year they own the house, attesting that they live in the home and that it’s their primary residence. The benefit subsequently renews automatically.
Married since 1991, the Burnetts bought their home on Warren Boulevard, near Union Park, in 1994, a year before Burnett first took office as alderman.
Records show the couple paid $71,000. Over the years, they’d take out more mortgages on the Warren Boulevard home, in both of their names, most recently for $386,000 in 2016.
From 2001 to 2010, they had the home in a trust, but the tax bills always went to Walter Burnett, records show.
The property appears to have had a homeowner exemption since that time, though the name of the beneficiary between 1995 and 2000 isn’t available in records obtained from the assessor’s office.
The couple bought the 1,040-square-foot home on Crystal Street in October 2012, agreeing to buy it for $55,000, taking out a $43,000 mortgage.
In 2016 and 2018, Williams-Burnett filed appeals on the taxes and got the assessed value lowered both times.
“My wife’s family live on that block,” Burnett says. “We saved that building so family members can stay over there.”