Assessor recovers $20M from erroneous exemptions

Would-be lost money is returned to taxpayers for schools and other local needs

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Assessor Joseph Berrios

The Cook County Assessor’s Office has reached a new milestone in its recovery of revenue from erroneous exemptions. Since the Erroneous Exemptions Unit was instituted by Assessor Joseph Berrios, $20.6 million has now been collected. All recovered revenue is always returned directly to school districts and other community taxing bodies.

The Unit has been operating only since 2013, after Assessor Berrios conceived legislation and spearheaded a bipartisan effort to pass and sign into law the Erroneous Homestead Exemption Program. The results show how effective the Unit is: $38.1 million billed in three-and-a-half years ($20.6M collected, $17.5 being pursued). The Cook County Assessor’s Office (CCAO) has placed $4.2M in liens on debtor properties; 835 liens are now recorded, accumulating interest at 1.5% per month.

“We will not rest on our laurels,” said Assessor Berrios. “Just a few months ago, we were congratulated for collecting $18.6 million from erroneous exemptions. But we keep moving and have added another $2 million. I’m proud of what our staff has done since my plan became our plan. These dedicated men and women continue to work very hard.”

All investigations and collections are completed at no cost to taxpayers because the Erroneous Exemptions Unit is self-sustaining. Its impact will be felt for years as the savings live on annually because the exemptions are no longer in place. Further, CCAO projects erroneous exemption revenue to total another $6.5M in Fiscal Year 2017.

Writing on behalf of the Office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, County Budget Director Tanya Anthony said last month, “The Erroneous Exemption Recovery Program has been one of the shining examples of operational effectiveness at the County. The program’s self-sustainability is a model we strive to implement with other programs countywide.”

Just months after taking office, Assessor Berrios in 2011 made a priority of examining past practices which he believed resulted in inappropriate exemptions being undetected for years. In 2012, he worked with the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation allowing CCAO to go after erroneous exemption money. Approximately 40,000 Property Index Numbers (PINs) have been investigated to date.

“The communities are entitled to this money and are thrilled to receive it. But the pleasure is all ours because to recover millions of dollars for taxpayers is a very satisfying aspect among the Assessor’s Office responsibilities. At a time when schools and municipalities struggle with budget issues, it is helpful for this money to go back to serving the community,” Assessor Berrios added.

A person is allowed to have exemptions (property tax deductions) on only the home that is his or her primary residence. CCAO recoups funds from those who have improperly received homeowner, senior, disabled persons or disabled veteran exemptions.

The self-sustaining operation of the Cook County Assessor’s Office Erroneous Exemptions Unit is in keeping with State of Illinois law. The statute mandates that salaries and investigative costs for this special unit be covered from penalties and interest added to tax dollars originally not paid due to inappropriate exemptions received.

“I think the success of the law shows how much it was needed,” Assessor Berrios observed. “Previously, there was nothing in place to get back the money unfairly received from exemptions or deter this from happening in the future. Communities know we’re on the case as future loss of their revenue is prevented by permanently removing these erroneous exemptions,” he added.

Any taxpayer billed for erroneous exemptions may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. If a bill is not paid after 30 days, CCAO sends out a second notice prior to a lien being placed on the home.

“If taxpayers are receiving an erroneous exemption or know of those who are, they should come forward and notify our office,” Berrios said. “I want to make sure everyone pays only his or her fair share of property taxes. No more and no less.”

Taxpayers may anonymously report erroneous exemptions at http://whistle-blowing.cookcountyassessor.com/.

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