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Took property tax deductions you didn’t deserve? Pay up by Dec. 31

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios  |  Sun-Times files

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios | Sun-Times files

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Updated: January 3, 2014 6:18AM

It may sting now, but inaction guarantees the pain will only get worse.

That’s the message Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has for homeowners who improperly received property tax deductions over the past three — and in some cases — six years.

Those who don’t pay up by Dec. 31 could face fines and interest payments — even a property lien.

It’s all part of a new state law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in July. The law allows the Cook County assessor’s office to go after property owners who break the rules by receiving tax deductions otherwise reserved for seniors and the disabled, or who claim homestead exemptions on residences they do not live at full time.

“It’s not the idea that the government wants to go and collect money from people,” said Berrios, whose office helps determine property tax bills. “Government just wants to make sure people don’t cheat.”

The practice of claiming too many property tax deductions has drawn scrutiny in recent years, in part because it unfairly shifts the tax burden to those who follow the rules.

Property taxes are collected in a way that is unlike payroll taxes. When raising property taxes, local governments first determine the amount of money they want to collect. Then they take into account land values and tax deductions to determine the share each property owner should pay.

Berrios, who spent two years lobbying the Legislature to pass the new law, estimates that his office initially stands to collect $15 million in back taxes alone.

Indeed, it was a member of his own staff who drew scrutiny last year when caught partaking in the practice of claiming an exemption to which he was not entitled. While the employee was suspended and ordered to pay back taxes, the dispute fueled a feud between the assessor and the county’s inspector general, who was trying to investigate the mater after Berrios refused to comply with a subpoena.

“For years we’ve known that there are people getting exemptions they are not entitled to,” said Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, who is one of 30 township assessors in the county who work as property-owner advocates, independent from Berrios’ office. “If anybody was inclined to play any kind of tricks, the worst that could happen if you got caught is that you couldn’t do it again.”

But despite several well-publicized examples of property tax fraud, ElSaffar said many might not even know they’ve been the recipients of unfair property tax breaks.

That’s because homestead exemptions typically stay on the books, even if a second home is purchased. The same goes with senior citizen and disabled exemptions. A house may be sold, but the exemption usually stays on the books, ElSaffar said.

“It’s easy for people to miss,” said Susan Morgan, 44, who recently realized that she and her husband were collecting two homestead exemptions. “We’re both honest, ethical people and we wanted to correct it.”

Morgan, now of Riverside, said the property taxes on her old Avondale condo were always deducted from mortgage payments handled by her bank. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

But Morgan, who said her household owed roughly $400 in back taxes, said she was lucky. Her husband works for Oak Park Township and was more aware of the fast-approaching deadline than most.

“Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have noticed until we were contacted by the county saying we owed them,” she said.

This much can be expected by Cook County homeowners, Berrios said: “As of January 1st, we will be checking our records and going after people.”

He said property owners can call his office — (312) 443-7550 — or show up in person to figure out their exemption status.


Twitter: @BrianSlodysko

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