In response to a Sun-Times report in late June, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi has slashed the property tax breaks they’d been getting, in some cases for years.
And Kaegi has threatened to place liens on seven of those properties in an effort to collect $371,027 in back taxes primarily because the lucrative “senior freeze” tax breaks they’d gotten in past years were wildly miscalculated or they didn’t even qualify to get them.
Kaegi took action on 10 of the 20 residential properties in the Sun-Times sampling of homes.
Nine of the homeowners have now asked for hearings to challenge Kaegi’s actions. They’ve told his office they want a chance to prove their eligibility for the tax break, which freezes the property assessments on the primary residence of homeowners 65 or older whose household income is less than $65,000 a year.
The senior freeze program was created to help protect older homeowners from being priced out of their homes by soaring taxes, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods where property values are booming. Seniors who think they’re eligible apply for the tax break. If the assessor agrees, their property assessment is frozen and remains at that same level year after year. That keeps their taxes from skyrocketing and, in some cases, might even push their taxes down.
The Sun-Times’ examination of the freezes on 144,000 residential properties found the tax breaks shifted $250 million onto other property owners even though the freezes often were incorrectly calculated. That meant some seniors paid less in property taxes than they should have — and other taxpayers had to make up for that.
Presented with those findings, Kaegi and his staff at first blamed the miscalculations on computer errors.
Now, shifting the blame from computers to Kaegi’s predecessors, they say the errors resulted from “policy decisions” made by past county assessors that lowered some frozen assessments in the owners’ favor.
“It’s not possible for us to know what happened on some of these because there isn’t a record in the system that says this is how this occurred,” Kaegi’s spokesman Scott Smith says. “There was a segment of those who weren’t meeting current policies. But, in addition to adjusting base years, we also flagged some of these to make sure that they qualify overall, that they meet the income requirements, all that kind of thing. So we had flagged those for an investigation, and those investigations are ongoing.”
Here’s a closer look at how Kaegi raised the taxable value — which leads to higher property taxes — on 10 properties in different parts of Chicago and the suburbs that the Sun-Times examined:
• Barbara Kaplan Israel, 75, and her husband Martin Israel, 71, the owners of a luxurious Magnificent Mile condo that they now are listing for sale at an asking price of $3.3 million, saw their tax bill skyrocket from $2,502 last year to $21,091 this year. Kaegi’s staff recalculated the assessment, changing the base year when it should have been frozen to 2014 from 2016 — when they got a separate tax break while the condo was vacant and being rehabbed.
The Israels, who also own an oceanfront condo in Boca Raton, Fla., that has a $19,000 yearly property tax bill, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Kaplan Israel is a retired stockbroker. Her husband was a commodities trader.
She once bought a pair of gold, ruby, sapphire and pearl pendant earrings at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s estate sale for $10,000 “to wear to black-tie parties” and ended up settling a lawsuit against Chanel in which she’d been seeking $160,000 over clothing she was having the couture house make for her.
• The tax bill soared from $1,702 last year to $18,703 this year on a five-unit building owned by 79-year-old Elvira Plass after Kaegi found the assessment on the building had been frozen years before Plass inherited the property from a relative who’d been getting a senior freeze since the program started in 1993. The assessor’s office didn’t increase the assessment when Plass acquired the property in the 4700 block of North Dover Street in 2007 and had left it frozen at that level until reporters asked about the property.
Kaegi says Plass could owe another $117,592 for back taxes since 2016.
Plass, who also owns two other apartment buildings on the North Side, couldn’t be reached.
• Mary Lou Aguilar, 89, has been stripped of her senior assessment freeze and other exemptions on the multi-unit apartment building in the 1700 block of South Racine Avenue in Pilsen because the property no longer is in her name. It’s listed as being owned by a limited liability corporation set up by her estranged grandson — and companies aren’t eligible for the senior freeze.
Without the tax breaks, the building’s tax bill rocketed to $13,903 this year from $754 last year.
And Kaegi’s office says the owners could owe $45,699 in back taxes because Aguilar hasn’t owned the property since 2008, according to the deed.
Aguilar’s son and caretaker has requested a hearing to challenge Kaegi’s findings, so his mother can afford to remain in her home.
Her grandson Miguel Aguilar says he has “nothing to do with that property anymore as of 2017. The LLC has been dissolved, and I hold no interest in the property. My relationship with Mary Lou is estranged.”
• Kaegi also stripped the senior freeze and other exemptions from a West Town three-flat owned by an 83-year-old man and sent him a lien notice for $60,254 in back taxes. Luis Robles and his wife got the freeze in 2004. But then they demolished the building and built a new three-flat on the property. The assessor’s office never reassessed the property based on the building that’s there now until it was asked about it by the Sun-Times.
Without his exemptions, the Robles’ tax bill soared from $2,319 last year to $20,513 this year.
Robles’ son says he submitted paperwork and asked for a hearing to win back his father’s exemptions frozen at 2006 instead of 2004. He says he expects the bill will rise a few thousand dollars but “not the $20,000 they gave us initially, which didn’t go over well with my dad. There’s more than ample proof he lives there and doesn’t make enough money.”
• Maria Resendez didn’t have to pay any property taxes last year on the small Bucktown bungalow in the 1900 block of North Wood Street that has been receiving a senior assessment freeze since 1993, when her late husband signed up for the new program.
Over the years since then, the assessor’s office incorrectly altered the year her husband qualified for the program and somehow made her frozen property value fluctuate, Smith says. The assessor has reset her assessment to its original 1993 level, resulting in a tax bill this year of $511 for the 92-year-old widow.
• What appears to have been a typographical error might be the only explanation why the tax bill on Daniel Kotas’ home in Orland Park fell to zero last year. Now, that mistake has been corrected, and his tax bill has jumped back to $8,441 this year.
The 76-year-old qualified for the senior exemption in 2018, and somehow the assessor’s office froze the assessment on his home at $15,711 rather than the correct figure, which includes one more digit: $115,711.
“Without a record of who or why the change was made — which we do not have — we do not know why this happened,” Smith says.
Kotas also has been notified that the assessor intends to file a lien for $10,595 in taxes for the past two years.
“This hit me as a surprise when they sent this,” Kotas says. “That’s all I can tell you. There’s so much confusion in that office. You know, I’ll pay my fair share. I just question this.”
• A dropped digit also appears to have raised the taxes on a spacious Morton Grove home. Young Woo Park, 67, and his wife Im Soon Park, 69, paid just $261 in taxes last year for their house in the 9400 block of Normandy Avenue but owe $16,954 this year.
The Parks — he lists a job at Motorola, and she’s a registered nurse — have qualified for a freeze since 2018. They couldn’t be reached.
Kaegi also notified them that he wants to collect $20,087 in back taxes for the past two years.
• A retired Chicago Police Department employee, Gladys Dates, 88, has been getting the senior freeze assessment for two decades. The bill on her two-story home in Beverly totaled $1,217 last year. This year, her bill is $3,047, its highest since 2004.
And the assessor says she owes $36,021 in back taxes dating to 2016.
Again, the assessor’s data show the home’s assessed value had been frozen at a lower level set in 1993 instead of the higher level set in 2000, when Dates was approved for the assessment freeze.
Government records show her pension last year was more than $67,000 — more than the $65,000 maximum allowed for the senior freeze.
• For the past three years, Albert Owens didn’t have to pay any property taxes at all on his home in the 151st block of Lexington Avenue in Harvey. This year, he’s got a tax bill of $9,363 because he has had all of his exemptions taken away — including the senior freeze that saved him thousands of dollars. So he now must pay taxes on the full value of his two-story home.
Smith says the law allowing people’s exemptions to roll over automatically in 2020 due to COVID-19 also required more audits than usual. As a result, he says of Owens, “For whatever reason, he didn’t recertify with us based on the mailing that we sent.”
Owens couldn’t be reached.
• The Cook County treasurer’s website shows that a co-op high-rise at 860 N. Lake Shore Dr. somehow got stripped on this year’s tax bill, covering all 95 of its units, of its senior freeze tax break.
That happened even though, according to Kaegi’s spokesman, “We are showing this property was eligible for the senior freeze” because 22 people who live there qualified.
Smith couldn’t explain why the treasurer’s office, which sends out the tax bills, doesn’t reflect that.
“If it did not show up on the tax bill for some reason, we will issue a certificate of error,” Smith says, to refund some of the taxes, which are due Oct. 1.
No one from the building’s management returned calls.
The elimination of the senior freeze exemptions is partly why the high-rise’s tax bill soared from $712,980 last year to $882,397 this year.
Last year, the senior freeze reduced the building’s tax bill by $58,725.