SPRINGFIELD -- Those in Illinois' largest county who knowingly or unwittingly claim undeserved homeowner exemptions will be penalized for the first time under a new law.
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios' office -- which has for years pushed for a change in the law -- expects the move will help recoup a significant portion of the estimated $65 million it loses each year from residents taking exemptions to which they are not entitled. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation this week. It goes into effect immediately.
Berrios' office targeted the illegal exemptions after receiving calls and emails about people improperly receiving exemptions, aides said. Among those who did so were Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, who claimed three exemptions at once in Cook County for a period of years; and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who said she inadvertently forgot to notify the DeKalb County Assessor's office when she moved to a home in Hoffman Estates.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said the law only applies to Cook County because others "weren't interested in having this authority."
Illinois residents can claim a homeowner exemption only on the property that is their main residence, and additional exemptions are available for senior citizens, veterans, or disabled residents. An exemption reduces the amount of property taxes owed by lowering a property's assessed value.
Under the law, Cook County assessor's office will start fining homeowners who claim more exemptions than they are entitled. If a homeowner has gone more than 60 days after being notified without paying, a lien will be placed against their property. There was previously no penalty in Illinois for those who abused the system or mistakenly claimed additional exemptions; once discovered, it was simply removed.
The General Assembly -- which has the power under the state constitution to set exemptions -- unanimously passed the legislation in May after lengthy negotiations with the Illinois State and Chicago Bar Associations, the Suburban Township Assessors Association, the Illinois Realtors Association and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
"There have been ups and downs, hiccups and burps," Currie, a Chicago Democrat and the new law's House sponsor, said. "What you see is a measure that was carefully negotiated, and took a fair bit of time in the marinade."
Illinois Association of Realtors' spokesman Jon Broadbooks said his organization ultimately was pleased that the law applies stricter penalties as time goes on and fees are not paid. An amnesty period for those who know they owe exemptions ends Dec. 31.
"If you set out intentionally defrauding a county, then you should have to pay for that," Broadbooks said.
The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald reported this spring that Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist in the GOP race for governor, claimed three homestead exemptions at once -- on a Winnetka home, a Chicago penthouse and another condo in the same building. He later paid Cook County $1,616 to cover the extra tax savings he received.
Duckworth, of Hoffman Estates, claimed homestead exemptions on homes she owned both DeKalb and Cook counties from 2007 to 2010, the newspaper also reported. Duckworth said the mistake wasn't intentional. In DeKalb County, exemptions are automatically renewed each year unless residents notify the assessor's office. She later paid $1,928, plus interest.
Other counties in the state did not push for the crackdown, as some didn't consider it a big enough problem and others saying the fine is too harsh.
"Personally, I thought it was a little overstepping," said Craig Dovel, the DuPage County assessor.
Tammy Robinson, Union County supervisor of assessments, said in small counties like downstate Union, she said, "people know other people," which leads to more problems being reported and taken care of in a timely manner.
"I think the whole thing (exemption process) can be confusing to people," she said.