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updated: 7/12/2012 12:33 PM

Tax bills troubling for many seniors

Exemption law an unnecessary burden, assessor says

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Hundreds of suburban Cook County homeowners -- mostly senior citizens -- have flooded the county assessor's office at the Rolling Meadows courthouse in recent weeks to file for adjustments to their property tax bills.

"We've sent about 200 to 300 over to the courthouse with certificates of error from our office," said Elk Grove Township Assessor Connie Carosielli. "Some that I've talked to have gone straight to the courthouse."

Since the legislature began requiring elderly residential property owners to annually refile for the $4,000 senior citizen exemption a few years ago, the number of seniors who missed that announcement, forgot to refile or don't understand the law has increased with each passing year, officials said.

And as an added wrinkle, if someone doesn't refile for the senior exemption, he or she loses the homeowner's exemption as well. That exemption is worth at least $6,000.

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and many other county assessment officials say the law is wreaking havoc.

"Assessor Berrios has been working with state legislators to have this law changed," said Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for Berrios' office. "He feels it is an unnecessary burden for seniors to have to reapply annually when they have already provided documentation proving they are entitled to the exemption."

The law was changed to prevent fraud after it was discovered that some property owners claiming the exemption -- which works out to about $350 off a tax bill for the owner of a $250,000 home -- weren't senior citizens.

Suburban township assessors' offices have been hopping with residents pouring in to have their tax bills explained to them. Many assessors said property owners remain confused about why their taxes increased even though their property values have declined.

That's usually because government agencies that levy taxes are still entitled to receive a certain amount of money by law and few have decreased that levy from the previous year.

The increase is also affected by property tax appeals. A residential property owner who doesn't appeal an assessment is more likely to see a tax bill increase than a property owner who successfully appeals to have the assessed value reduced.

A Daily Herald analysis has shown the Cook County Board of Review is more apt to give commercial property owners heftier reductions to their assessments than residential property owners, shifting more of the tax burden onto residential property owners.

Hoffman Estates resident Larry Latko, who retired four years ago from an insurance job, said his property tax bill has increased 30 percent over the past two years.

"If I was getting a Social Security raise of 30 percent, I wouldn't bother to call anybody," he said. "But they're forcing me to leave my house. I can't keep this up. I'm tired of it."

Kownacki said that since the second installment of the year's tax bills went out July 1, Berrios' office has adjusted 4,716 tax bills. The problem is so prevalent, Berrios issued a reminder Wednesday for residents to check their tax bill for the appropriate exemptions.

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