Nearly 7,000 seniors will get adjusted property tax bills this week because the Cook County assessor's office failed to give them an exemption they were due, mistakenly billing them hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars more than they owed.
The assessor's office said its computer system did not flag the mistake before the wrong bills were mailed. Township assessors say it is also because of a confusing and complex tax system — one made even more baffling because of declines in property values in recent years.
Exemptions and programs such as the "senior freeze" were designed to protect qualifying homeowners from rapidly rising tax bills as property values increased — which hasn't been happening during the real estate slump of recent years.
The program will not benefit recent applicants whose homes have declined in assessed value since applying for the freeze, said Niles Township Assessor Scott Bagnall. That's because there is no increased value to protect them from, he said.
But local governments still need to collect the same amount of taxes — or more. So the tax rate is adjusted, which can result in higher taxes for property owners, despite the declining market value of their homes, Bagnall explained.
Many seniors still could qualify for a significantly lower tax bill through the "longtime occupant" exemption, aimed at those who have lived in their home for more than 10 years and have a household income of less than $100,000 per year.
The assessor's office runs a calculation to make sure seniors are receiving the largest possible reduction on their bill, even if they didn't apply for the longtime occupant exemption, said spokeswoman Kelley Quinn.
This year, after the tax bills hit homeowners' mailboxes, the assessor's office discovered that 6,749 seniors who qualified were not given the longtime occupancy exemption and that their tax bills would be decreased by it, Quinn said.
"There was a small systems issue that didn't put it on the tax bill," Quinn said.
She could not quantify the difference between the original bills and the correct bills. But she has seen several revised tax bills that will result in payments that are $200 to $600 less than the bills that were originally sent out.
Nick Pavletic, Evanston Township deputy assessor, said it could be a difference of thousands of dollars for some property owners, depending on their circumstances. He calculated that one local woman was overtaxed by $1,933.46.
The 84-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified, said she was shocked by the bill she received in late June.
"I immediately kind of freaked out," she said.
Pavletic said there are many seniors who probably didn't realize a mistake had been made with their bill.
One of those is Bonnie Wilson, the Evanston Township assessor. She received a letter dated Thursday from the county assessor's office saying the longtime occupant exemption would save her the most money. It instructed her to ignore her original bill.
She is now urging seniors to "wait a few weeks before they pay their tax bill because they're not due until Aug. 1."
Those who have already paid will be reimbursed for the difference, Quinn said.
Ali ElSaffar, Oak Park Township assessor and president of the Cook County Township Assessors' Association, applauded the county for being proactive in addressing the issue.
"Every year there's something," ElSaffar said. "We have made our tax system so complicated that it's so easy to make mistakes. One thing we do every year is correct mistakes because it happens."