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Senior exemption change creates headaches for townships

Wednesday, August 04, 2010
Daily Herald
by Kerry Lester

Suburban township assessors and senior advocacy groups say one component of new tax legislation will not only hurt property owners most in need of relief, but also create mountains of paperwork and unnecessary headaches for agencies dealing most closely with them.

The legislation signed Sunday by Gov. Pat Quinn extending the annual seven percent cap on property tax growth in Cook County features one caveat - beginning next fall, senior-citizen home owners living in Cook County will have to reapply for annual tax breaks each year.

Since 2008, Cook County Assessor James Houlihan's office has used an automatic rollover system whereby seniors who showed proof of age and residency needed to apply for an exemption only once.

Assessor's office figures show that more than 284,000 senior homeowners in the county take advantage of the program.

With the automatic rollover ending, seniors will have to send the assessor's office copies of their property tax bill and drivers' licenses each year in order to get the break.

Amendment sponsors have justified the change, noting it will weed out individuals who are not qualified for the benefit but still getting the tax credit year after year.

But Dan Patlak, Wheeling Township Assessor, said the change will "put more of a burden on seniors, and more of a burden on the government to have to reissue these exemptions for people we know are deserving."

Patlak predicted that a number of seniors rightfully entitled to an exemption won't remember to apply each year.

"Others," he said, "will discover that they didn't get it, and file a certificate of error. That will create more difficulty for the township offices."

The Cook County assessor now operates only one office in the Northwest suburbs, in Skokie. Residents who want to file a certificate of error will have to fill out a form online or head either to their local township assessor's office or to a county assessor's office in Chicago.

"It's an unfunded mandate by the state," said Carol Reagan, executive director of the Palatine Township Senior Citizens Council.

"It increases the local assessor's responsibility. It will add to our staff's workload at a time when we're seeing more problems than ever. ... I think it's going to cost more than it's going to save."

The nonprofit council works each year with the Palatine Township Assessor's Office to disseminate information about senior tax exemptions.

Reagan said four social service employees are on staff to help English and non-English speaking senior residents, some of them homebound, fill out forms.

"It would add to their workload," Reagan said. "I'm most concerned about our older adults who are homebound and may have difficulty understanding what this is about. When the mail comes, they may think it's simply a confirmation of their exemption and throw it away."

According to the Cook County Assessor's Office, the average homestead exemption last year was $270 for seniors living in Arlington Heights, $302 in Bartlett, $311 in Elgin, and $248 in Des Plaines.

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