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Article updated: 11/14/2013 11:08 AM

Editorial: Fix the senior freeze tax exemption

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By The Daily Herald Editorial Board

There are so many components to Illinois' property tax system that it's no wonder the state's legislators haven't yet corrected a serious problem outlined Wednesday by our Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin.

But fix it they must.

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As Griffin's report shows, too many Illinois senior citizens on fixed incomes are paying more property taxes now because of a steep decline in the value of their property than they did when their property was worth more.

And for those senior homeowners -- 65 and older whose incomes are less than $55,000 a year -- it's an unfair burden that needs a remedy.

And almost everyone Griffin talked to agrees.

"It's the law of unintended consequences," said DuPage County Supervisor of Assessments Craig Dovel.

"This is a serious problem," said state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican who sits on the House property tax committee. "The issue is huge. Nobody thought property values would decline."

As Griffin's analysis of the senior freeze exemption in 50 suburban townships shows, nearly 52,000 homeowners were taking advantage of the exemption in 2009 -- resulting in an average assessment reduction of $16,214. Last year, fewer than 35,000 benefited and the average assessment reduction fell 46.4 percent to $8,695.

Mark Armstrong, Kane County's supervisor of assessments, put it succinctly: "Does that mean these seniors are paying more property taxes now than when their home was worth more and they were benefiting from the freeze? It absolutely does."

Harris says the whole property tax system needs to be reformed. Others blame local taxing bodies for ballooning their property tax levies in an effort to get the maximum amount of tax dollars they can. And strong cases can be made for those theories and more.

But for people like 70-year-old Barbara Rogers of Crystal Lake, waiting for statewide reform or the understanding of local taxing bodies isn't the answer. Her house dropped in value by $12,000, meaning there was no more benefit from the senior freeze exemption. Her tax bill in 2012 went up $900. For a widow on a fixed income, that's a lot.

Harris and his colleagues need to figure out how to help seniors like Rogers in the future so those lower-income homeowners can get the property tax break that was created so they weren't in danger of being taxed out of their homes.

And at the very least, since seniors must apply every year for the freeze exemption, a communication effort needs to be implemented locally so that, moving forward, seniors freeze their assessments at today's lower levels.

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