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Oops: County computer error further delays Cook tax bills

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Pioneer Press
by Karen Berkowitz

Cook County officials have averted a disastrous property tax error affecting 80,000 long-term homeowners, but the discovery could further delay the mailing of second installment property tax bills.

About 80,000 homeowners are due to receive a long-term occupant exemption, which is better than the standard homeowner exemption because there are no limits on the amount of the exemptions.

However, when the Permanent Index Numbers of those properties were sent to the Cook County's MIS department in late August, a technical glitch occurred and the numbers were not uploaded to the computer, said Eric Herman, spokesman for Cook County Assessor James Houlihan, on Tuesday.

"The error was not in this office," said Herman, who looked into the problem based on an inquiry from Pioneer Press.

"What happened was that one of our staffers in the taxpayer services department noticed the problem while doing a spot check and alerted everybody," said Herman. "We were able to deal with it on the front end. If we had not spotted this, the treasurer would have sent out 80,000 erroneous tax bills and that means we would have had to issue about 80,000 certificates of error That would have been an administrative nightmare for everybody."

Taxing districts would have been required to refund the overpayments to those taxpayers, resulting in lost collections. More than $1 billion of equalized assessed value was at stake.

Because of the error, the Cook County Clerk's office has recalculated the tax base of each jurisdiction and computed new tax rates. The clerk's office advised taxing districts last week to ignore the tentative figures sent out earlier on tax rates and assessed values and consider those reports "null and void."

Bob Benjamin, spokesman for Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, said Tuesday the due date for second installment property tax bills may be as late as Dec. 1 because the treasurer's office has not yet received tax rates from the Cook County Clerk's office. Those rates are needed before the treasurer can begin computing, printing and mailing about 1.7 million tax bills.

"The more time goes on, the more it looks like a possible Dec. 1 due date," said Benjamin.

The long-term homeowner exemption is available to owners who've occupied the premises for 10 or more years and who have household incomes of $100,000 or less. Like the standard exemption, the measure limits the growth in assessments from year to year, but there are no limits on the size of the exemption.

This year, the standard homeowner exemption will be capped at $33,000 for homeowners in the newly reassessed west and south suburbs. The maximum exemption will drop to $26,000 in the north and northwest suburbs that were reassessed in 2007 and to $20,000 for homeowners in the city of Chicago.

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