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Emanuel extends the deadline to apply for property tax rebate

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday extended until Dec. 30 the deadline for Chicagoans to claim their share of a $20 million property tax rebate after only 7 percent of eligible homeowners applied for the token break offered to soften the blow of a record property tax increase.

Emanuel had promised to encourage Chicagoans to take advantage of the rebate instead of offering the relief for political cover and secretly hoping they don’t apply.

But the city’s efforts to cast the broadest possible net have fallen flat. With two days to go until the original deadline, only 11,000 or 7 percent of the 155,000 eligible homeowners have applied for the break. With the average rebate of $109 per homeowner, that amounts to just $1.2 million. Nearly $19 million remains unclaimed.

On Monday, City Hall agreed to give homeowners another month to claim their share.

“The city-funded property tax rebate program is an important program for the city and provides hardworking homeowners some property tax relief,” Emanuel said in a press release.

“By extending the application deadline, we are ensuring that even more eligible working- and middle-class families are able to apply for a rebate in time for the holiday season.”

The 7 percent response is a huge disappointment, considering the two-month application window, the simplified process to qualify for the break and the broad community outreach to encourage homeowners to claim their share.

Residents can apply by visiting any one of over 20 neighborhood locations. They need only bring along a photo ID, a copy of their 2015 income tax return or Social Security award letter and the second installment of their 2015 property tax bills.

The dismal response came as no surprise to Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

“It’s a pretty broad brush of an exemption with a relatively modest financial benefit compared to the effort it takes to apply. Unfortunately, as we feared, not many people bothered,” Msall said.

“It’s not tied to specified income levels. So, it’s not targeted at the most needy. The reality is this exemption adds to the opaqueness and confusion regarding the Cook County property tax system and will not avert the need for Chicago property owners having to pay significant increased property taxes in order to meet the large unfunded pension obligations and other debt of the city.”

If the 30-day extension results in the “same limited response,” Msall said, the city would be “better off applying the money to other city programs, rather than to an unfunded continuing obligation” without an identified source of funding.

With no apologies for the modest level of assistance, the City Council voted unanimously in July to authorize the $20 million rebate to inoculate the mayor and aldermen from some of the political fallout from a record property tax increase.

The maximum rebate for the 155,000 eligible households was $150. Senior citizens who own homes where the equalized assessed value has increased by 30 percent or more could get up to $300.

That’s not a lot of money. It won’t be the difference between keeping your home or having to move out of a hot neighborhood. There’s also no relief yet for renters. That’s a demand that several aldermen made, but Emanuel ignored.

When the city’s preferred plan to double the homeowner’s exemption fell flat in Springfield, Emanuel and aldermen vowed to replace it. The token rebate fulfilled that promise.

The break was bankrolled by a $20 million transfer tax windfall generated by the sale of the Chicago Skyway to Canadian pension funds.

It assumed that every one of the roughly 155,000 eligible households with incomes under $75,000 would take advantage of the city’s offer.

History argued otherwise.

In 2010, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley set aside $35 million for rebate checks. In the end, only $2.1 million was distributed. Most homeowners didn’t bother to apply.

Emanuel had hoped to break that mold by hiring community groups, housing organizations and “places of worship” to spread the word. He also promised to use “new technology, including texting, to remind people that this rebate is for you.”

“The rebate is not to be there on the books and then, with a nod and a wink, you hope nobody takes it. It’s there to alleviate any financial strain. And we’re gonna make sure that’s what happens when we do it,” the mayor said.

While his budget director opened the door to extending the rebate to renters, Emanuel sloughed off that demand. He had more important concerns.

“Before we talk about who else, I’ve got to make sure that the $20 million that we worked hard to make sure that the owners of the Skyway and parking garages paid gets used by our senior citizens and those on fixed incomes or incomes under a tremendous amount of financial stress,” Emanuel said on the day of the City Council vote.

History has now been repeated. Barring a major turnaround over the next month, the city will have $19 million sitting around unclaimed.

Rebate checks to the first 11,000 homeowners to apply for the break will begin going out this week.