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Cook leaders want property tax exemption crackdown law

Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Byrne

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkleand Assessor Joe Berrios on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to give them more power to go after property owners who improperly claim tax breaks, saying they could recover more than $150 million in three years with the new authority.

Under legislation pending in Springfield, counties could go after back taxes from people who have wrongly received homestead exemptions. The tax break should only be applied to a property owner's primary residence, but people often also claim it for rental properties, vacation homes and secondary residences. Other property owners get inappropriate property tax reductions for being a senior citizen, disabled person or disabled veteran.

People who claimed multiple improper homestead exemptions also would be fined a percentage of their unpaid taxes, and the county could place liens on the properties to try to compel property owners to pay up.

A similar measure stalled in Springfield last year, which Berrios blamed on pressure from real estate agents and landlords who oppose the plan. The assessor also said the previous version of the bill got weighed down by unrelated proposals that got attached to it during the legislative process.

“This bill is a stand-alone,” Berrios said at a news conference, explaining why he's optimistic the new version will pass.

Based on the number of exemption cheats he said he has found to date, Berrios estimated $154 million would be returned to the county, school districts and the like during the first three years the plan was in effect.

Last October, the Tribune found numerous examples of public officials collecting improper homestead exemptions. And they were just a few examples among thousands of taxpayers who have benefited — intentionally or otherwise — from tax breaks they are not entitled to receive, the newspaper disclosed.

Preckwinkle described it as a matter of fairness. “Residents have to bear the financial burden when their neighbors wrongfully take property tax exemptions, so this legislation is about leveling the playing field,” Preckwinkle said.

The latest version of the measure has passed the House, and Berrios said he's working with Senate President John Cullerton to build support.

Assessor spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said Berrios also is working with lawmakers to introduce a plan to let senior citizens apply for their property tax exemption every three years instead of requiring them to do so each year.

Seniors used to automatically get the exemption, but the General Assembly changed the law in 2010 to require them to reapply each year. A plan Berrios endorsed to make the senior exemption automatic once again stalled in the House last year, in part because House Speaker Michael Madigan did not support it.

jebyrne@tribune.com
Twitter @_johnbyrne

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Assessor Joe Berrios on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to give them more power to go after property owners who improperly claim tax breaks, saying they could recover more than $150 million in three years with the new authority.
Under legislation pending in Springfield, counties could go after back taxes from people who have wrongly received homestead exemptions. The tax break should only be applied to a property owner's primary residence, but people often also claim it for rental properties, vacation homes and secondary residences. Other property owners get inappropriate property tax reductions for being a senior citizen, disabled person or disabled veteran.
People who claimed multiple improper homestead exemptions also would be fined a percentage of their unpaid taxes, and the county could place liens on the properties to try to compel property owners to pay up.
A similar measure stalled in Springfield last year, which Berrios blamed on pressure from real estate agents and landlords who oppose the plan. The assessor also said the previous version of the bill got weighed down by unrelated proposals that got attached to it during the legislative process. “This bill is a stand-alone,” Berrios said at a news conference, explaining why he's optimistic the new version will pass.
Based on the number of exemption cheats he said he has found to date, Berrios estimated $154 million would be returned to the county, school districts and the like during the first three years the plan was in effect.
Last October, the Tribune found numerous examples of public officials collecting improper homestead exemptions. And they were just a few examples among thousands of taxpayers who have benefited — intentionally or otherwise — from tax breaks they are not entitled to receive, the newspaper disclosed.
Preckwinkle described it as a matter of fairness. “Residents have to bear the financial burden when their neighbors wrongfully take property tax exemptions, so this legislation is about leveling the playing field,” Preckwinkle said.
The latest version of the measure has passed the House, and Berrios said he's working with Senate President John Cullerton to build support.
Assessor spokeswoman Kelly Quinn said Berrios also is working with lawmakers to introduce a plan to let senior citizens apply for their property tax exemption every three years instead of requiring them to do so each year.
Seniors used to automatically get the exemption, but the General Assembly changed the law in 2010 to require them to reapply each year. A plan Berrios endorsed to make the senior exemption automatic once again stalled in the House last year, in part because House Speaker Michael Madigan did not support it.




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