Pay up, Cook County orders homeowners after Sun-Times exposed wrongful property tax breaks
After Sun-Times reports exposed questionable tax breaks, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi tells four people to pay a total of $254,298 for years of tax breaks they shouldn’t have gotten.
A wealthy couple has agreed to repay more than $67,000 in property tax breaks they incorrectly claimed for two years on their 58th-floor Water Tower Place condo.
The daughter of a dead mobster has to repay $16,271 in tax breaks she got after her father’s name was repeatedly signed on applications to lower the property taxes on their Bridgeview home.
And an 89-year-old woman has to repay $90,552 in property tax breaks reserved for homeowners and seniors that she continued to take even after her Pilsen apartment building was signed over to a company controlled by her grandson.
After a series of Chicago Sun-Times reports exposed questionable tax breaks, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s staff has ordered four people to repay a total of $254,298 for years of tax breaks they shouldn’t have gotten.
And, in a rare move for the assessor’s office, the dead mobster’s case has been turned over to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to determine whether any laws were broken in wrongfully claiming the exemptions, which cut the home’s property tax bills.
Other homeowners have seen their property taxes soar after Kaegi’s staff recalculated the exemptions they’d claimed under one of the most lucrative property tax exemptions — the “senior citizen freeze,” which can drastically cut tax bills.
That tax break caps property assessments for people 65 years or older whose household income is under $65,000. The aim of the law creating that exemption was to protect seniors against rising property taxes in booming neighborhoods.
Two years ago, the assessor granted the senior freeze for 144,904 properties, which shifted $250 million in property taxes from them onto Cook County’s other 1.77 million properties. Altogether, taxpayers in Cook County pay $15.5 billion a year in property taxes.
Barbara Kaplan Israel and Martin Israel are among those who were told by the assessor to pay up.
At a hearing late last month, the Israels — who are trying to sell their condominium on the Magnificent Mile, listing it for $3.3 million — agreed to repay $67,197, including interest, for the senior citizen tax freeze they claimed in 2018 and 2019 that the assessor’s office determined they didn’t qualify to get.
They previously had paid a total of just $4,966 in property taxes for those two years after convincing the assessor to slash the estimated value of their 3,300-square-foot condo while it was under renovation.
But the hearing officer who heard their case last month ruled that the Israels did meet the under-$65,000 total household income requirement to qualify for the senior freeze for the 2016 and 2017 tax years, when they paid a total of $44,408 in taxes.
The Israels, whose taxes rose last year to $21,091, reached the agreement last month to pay up for 2018 and 2019 after the state’s attorney’s office reviewed their tax returns. They did not return messages seeking comment.
Sarah Garza Resnick, Kaegi’s chief of staff, says any exemptions the Israels claim in the future will get an “in-depth analysis” to make sure they qualify, though the office doesn’t typically require senior freeze applicants to submit tax returns when they declare their income.
In another of the cases, Joseph J. Lombardi Sr., a convicted mobster who went to prison over his role in a loan-sharking operation, died Nov. 15, 2013. But someone kept applying for a senior citizen assessment freeze in Lombardi’s name, signing the dead man’s name each year through 2019 and claiming he made about $12,000 annually. The tax bills for those years were paid with cashier’s checks that didn’t require a signature.
The Lyons Township assessor alerted Kaegi’s office in June 2019 of Lombardi’s death. But the assessor’s office didn’t go to the home to check on it until Dec. 17, 2020.
“The 2020 application was submitted to our office with Joseph Lombardi Sr.’s name and driver’s license attached,” Resnick says.
On Jan. 27, Jason Pyle, Kaegi’s director of investigations, told a hearing officer that Lombardi’s daughter was “under the impression that at age 55 they had become eligible for the senior exemption. She was mistaken.”
There was no explanation regarding how the applications for the exemption continued to be signed in the name of a man who’d been dead for years.
Lombardi’s estate was ordered to repay $16,271 for senior freeze exemptions the property was granted between 2016 and 2019.
Resnick says no payment has been made, though, and the assessor has since placed a lien on the property and referred the case to the state’s attorney’s office for investigation.
Kaegi’s office stripped the Lombardi home of all exemptions, which saw the tax bill rise last year to $5,511 from $1,489.
Lombardi’s daughter did not return messages seeking comment.
In another case, Kaegi’s office placed a lien April 18 on an apartment building in the 1700 block of South Racine Avenue in an effort to recover $90,552 in improper exemptions, plus interest, from Mary Lou Aguilar.
Aguilar got those tax breaks from 2014 through 2019 while the property was owned by a business controlled by her grandson. The tax breaks are available only for homeowners and seniors, not for companies. The lien gives the county a claim on the property, but it might have to wait until the property is sold to recover the back taxes.
Kaegi has stripped the property of all exemptions. So its tax bill skyrocketed to $13,903 last year, from $754.
In other cases:
- A retired veterinarian, Allen Cosnow, 84, has repaid $80,278 because he “understated his income on the application” to receive a senior freeze and lower his property taxes between 2016 and 2019 on his five-bedroom home in Glencoe. His tax bill last year was $17,722. He declined to comment.
- Marc A. Taylor died in February 2020, leaving an estate that included a home in Rogers Park and two apartment buildings in Lincoln Park. All had liens filed by the assessor in 2018 to recover $139,053 in taxes plus interest for tax breaks he was found not to have been entitled to receive between 2010 and 2016.
One of the Lincoln Park buildings was sold last December, and the county recovered $25,060 for the erroneous tax breaks. The two other liens remain outstanding, county records show.
- An apartment building in Uptown saw its tax bill soar to $18,579 last year from $1,702 after Kaegi’s office found that it mistakenly failed to update the assessment when owner Elvira Plass acquired the building from a relative. Because of the assessor’s mistake, Plass got $117,592 in tax breaks she shouldn’t have gotten, but she won’t have to repay that. She declined to comment.
- Gladys Dates, 89, a retired Chicago Police Department employee, successfully defended the senior freeze she’s gotten for two decades on her Beverly home, according to the assessor, which said it miscalculated her tax break. Dates’ police pension totaled $67,000 in 2020, which appears to exceed income requirements to qualify for the freeze. But, after a hearing, the assessor said she “met the income requirement.” Still, her tax bill went up to $3,047 last year, from $1,217. Dates couldn’t be reached.
- Also determined to have met the income requirement for a senior freeze were Young Woo Park, 68, and his wife Im Soon Park, 69, whose tax bill for their Morton Grove home in the 9400 block of Normandy Avenue plunged from $18,577 to $261 in 2020. The assessor’s office says the drastic decrease in their tax bill was due to a computer error that gave them a tax break of $18,043 for their senior freeze. The error has been corrected, and the Parks paid $16,954 last year. The Parks couldn’t be reached.