Why only Cook County homeowners are getting a bigger tax exemption

Cook County homeowners are getting a property tax break that their counterparts in other counties aren't.

The $7,000 homeowners exemption and $5,000 senior citizen exemption are both increasing by $3,000 next year, to $10,000 and $8,000 respectively, thanks to legislation Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed. Cook County taxpayers will see the effects of the exemption increases on the second installment of their property taxes next summer, officials said.

“The exemptions hadn't kept pace with the values of homes in Cook County,” said Tom Shaer, a spokesman for Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. “This was designed to help lower-market and middle-class homeowners.”

The exemptions cut taxes by reducing the assessed value of homes.

Meanwhile, homeowners in the collar counties and downstate won't see similar increases to their exemptions. The homeowners exemption will stay at $6,000 for collar county and downstate homeowners, and the senior citizen exemption will remain at $5,000.

The legislation to increase the exemptions for Cook County taxpayers passed the state Senate unanimously and had just 24 votes against it in the House.

“It's very disappointing they're getting one more special deal, particularly on property taxes, which have such a significant role in education funding,” said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican who had an excused absence from session the day of the vote to deal with other state business. “We need to look holistically at property taxes statewide.”

Shaer defended the tax breaks as making up for what Cook County taxpayers contribute in general as the state's “economic engine.”

Using Cook County's most recently available average tax rate for the Northern suburbs, the change in the homeowners exemption would reduce the tax bill on a $300,000 home by about $277 next year if tax levies remain flat. People over age 65 who receive both exemptions on a $300,000 house could expect to pay about $555 less.

“It is a big deal because the number of people we saw when they raised assessments last time was horrific,” said Elk Grove Township Assessor Connie Carosielli. “There was a lot of work to get this passed by the legislature and help our most vulnerable taxpayers.”

Exemptions don't reduce property tax revenue owed to governments; it merely shifts the burden to commercial property owners or residential property owners who don't qualify for the exemptions. The increase in the exemptions is expected to eliminate more than $800 million in assessed value from residential properties in Barrington, Elk Grove, Hanover, Leyden, Palatine, Maine, Schaumburg and Wheeling townships alone.

Homeowners eligible for the senior exemption have to apply every year with the county assessor's office. Taxpayers eligible for the homeowners exemption have to apply only once, but the application period is essentially just the month of February.

While taxpayers outside Cook County won't share in the tax breaks, qualifications for the state's senior citizen property assessment freeze for those 65 or older recently were loosened.

The maximum household income for the senior freeze increased to $65,000 as part of the legislation, up $10,000 from the previous level. State officials weren't certain how many new households would qualify, but Carosielli said she expects hundreds more in Elk Grove Township. The earnings level hasn't increased in years, she said.

“We have turned people away who were literally $500 over the limit, and it's heartbreaking,” she said.

The catch is eligible Cook County seniors will be able to take advantage of the new freeze requirements next year, while seniors in other counties will have to wait another year.

The senior freeze works by locking a home's assessed value at a certain level so that even if it's reassessed at a higher value, the owner won't be taxed at the more expensive level. Legislators also added a stipulation that qualifying homeowners would see a minimum $2,000 reduction in assessed value if they receive the senior freeze. In recent years, many homeowners who qualified for the senior freeze received little or no financial benefit because home values plummeted during the Great Recession.

Eligible seniors also have to reapply each year to receive the property tax break.

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