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Assessor’s office looking into improper exemptions

Monday, September 17, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

The Cook County assessor’s office — the government agency that helps determine how much home and business owners pay in property taxes — has launched an internal audit after finding an employee may have improperly capitalized on a perk designed to ease the tax burden on senior citizens, the office said.

The agency offers seven “exemptions” for property owners in Chicago and the county’s suburbs. If property owners meet certain criteria they can catch a break on how much they pay in property taxes.

One exemption provides homeowners 65 years old and older with a reduction, which varies in size based on a variety of factors relating to their property.

The Better Government Association has found the Oak Forest home of a longtime assessor employee named Janice Szabo has received a “senior exemption” totaling more than $2,200 in reduced property taxes from 2006 and 2011.

The problem: Szabo is 60 and her husband, who also holds title to the home, is 61.

When the BGA asked the assessor’s office about the exemption, it was told the office had already been told of it — and determined Szabo did not deserve the exemption, said Kelley Quinn, spokeswoman for Assessor Joe Berrios.

Szabo was disciplined and the assessor’s office is now conducting a review of all of its approximately 350 employees to ensure any exemptions on their homes are appropriate and that nobody gamed the system, Quinn said.

Meantime, Szabo has been “asked to repay the money saved through the Senior Exemption,” Quinn said. “We are currently conducting an officewide audit pertaining to all employees’ residential exemptions.”

Szabo, a 14-year employee who works as a liaison to township assessors, says her elderly mother lives in the Oak Forest home, is on the deed and filed for the exemptions.

“My mother lives with us,” Szabo said. “She’s been with us for 25 years. She’s 90 years old.”

However, neither the assessor nor the BGA could find evidence that the mother was an owner of the property, which carries an annual tax bill of roughly $13,500. Szabo declined to provide documentation to the BGA. Her mother, Gwen Basile, could not be reached for comment.

Basile and Szabo have since paid the county back for the senior exemptions, which amounted to more than $300 a year from 2006 through 2011, according to the Cook County treasurer’s office, which collects tax payments.

To apply for a senior citizen exemption through the assessor’s office, applicants must fill out an application and show ID. No ownership documents are required, and there are only spot checks to determine whether the recipient is the property holder.

In Szabo’s case, Basile was the applicant, according to documents obtained from the assessor under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Quinn would not say how Szabo was disciplined, citing privacy concerns. But she was not fired.

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