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Sticker shock for senior homeowners
End of automatic exemption sparks surprise, confusion over property tax bills

Monday, October 24, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Erika Slife

They're coming in wheelchairs, leaning on canes and gripping the arms of their children. At least one needed a guide dog. The lines sometimes stretch out the doors.

Once seated at the Cook County assessor's office, they open their folders or envelopes and, in some cases with shaky hands, spread out their property tax bills before them. They point to the bottom line: It's hundreds more than they paid last year, an alarming figure to those on fixed incomes.

"What happened?" Juan Tovar, 83, who has lived near Chicago's Medical District for 53 years, recalled asking his daughter after receiving a $4,108.55 bill. His senior deductions were gone.

What happened is that under a new state law, Cook County homeowners age 65 and older now must reapply for the senior homestead exemption that had been automatically applied in years past.

Assessor Joe Berrios plans to go to Springfield this week to lobby lawmakers to reinstate the automatic exemption and spare seniors inconvenience and confusion.

It should be a slam dunk for the new assessor because it only needs to pass the Illinois House, where Berrios' longtime political ally, Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, runs the show. But Madigan and his top lieutenant last year pushed through the change that removed the automatic renewal, and now Berrios is living with the real-life consequences.

The assessor's office has sent out multiple mailings to the 300,000 homeowners who qualify and included applications for the tax break. His office has hosted more than 100 outreach sessions to alert seniors, and elected officials, churches and senior centers have sponsored countless others.

Yet, 55,000 homeowners ó about 1 in 5 ó did not get the message. Some might have thrown out the mail from the assessor's office.

In Tovar's case, he assumed that since he'd been receiving the senior deductions for years, the applications did not apply to him. Then his property tax invoice arrived.

"He looked at his bill, and he called me," said Tovar's daughter, Maria Tovar-Herrera, 52, who took a day off work to bring her father to the assessor's office. "We didn't know seniors had to apply yearly. He called me right away."

Tovar and his daughter sat down with an assessor employee who explained the new law. She crunched numbers and came up with another amount due for Tovar's bill: zero. In fact, he was owed $229.73.

Tovar received the missing senior exemption of $197.24 because he's 65 or older.

But the worker also found that the county's longtime exemption ó for owners who have lived in their homes for more than 10 years and have household incomes less than $100,000 ó gave Tovar greater savings than the senior freeze, which allows seniors making less than $55,000 to "freeze" the value of their homes for property tax purposes. Senior homeowners already had to reapply each year for the freeze because it's based on income.

Tovar's refund after the longtime exemption: $4,141.04. He was delighted. "I think more people should come here because they don't know these things," Tovar said.

Indeed, he is among the 10,500 seniors who have come to the assessor's office as of midweek and had their property taxes adjusted since bills landed in people's mailboxes the first week of October.

The change that's causing havoc with so many seniors was inserted last year into broader legislation that extended a popular tax break for Cook County homeowners. At the time, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said the automatic renewal of the senior exemption needed to end because some people abused the system by claiming the perk before turning 65.

Currie cited the case of Kelly Burke, an Evergreen Park woman who received the senior exemption for years though she and her husband were in their 40s. Burke said she wasn't aware of the break and noted a senior previously owned the home. The family repaid $2,189.

As it happens, Burke also had defeated a Madigan-backed House candidate in the Democratic primary. Inside the Capitol, the question lingered as to whether the speaker was dishing out political payback. Currie said, no, people simply should have to prove they qualify for the exemption.

So will Berrios be able to persuade Madigan to restore the automatic exemption?

"I'm going to go in there begging," Berrios said with a laugh.

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