How the senior freeze exemption affects your tax bill — and how it doesn't
Recent reporting in the Chicago Sun-Times discussed concerns about the implementation of the senior freeze exemption program. The below describes the problem the Assessor’s Office found and how it was corrected.
Q. What is the senior freeze exemption?
A. The Senior Freeze Exemption is designed to protect low-income seniors from high property taxes resulting from increases in assessments by freezing the equalized assessed value (EAV) of an eligible property (not the tax bill amount). These increases often occur in neighborhoods that experience sudden spikes in home values due to more interest from buyers. These homeowners have often owned their homes in a particular neighborhood for many years.
Most homeowners over 65 are eligible for this exemption if they are homeowners who pay taxes on their property and have a total household annual income of $65,000 or less.
Q. The Sun-Times said there were “numerous errors” with this program. What was the extent of the issue?
A. Of the 144,000 seniors who received the senior freeze exemption for Tax Year 2020, approximately 150 households received a benefit that our office believes is larger than it should be going forward. This amounts to 0.01% of all senior freeze exemptions.
The impact of the 150 households on the average taxpayer’s bill is very, very small. At most, it meant the difference of about a penny or two per tax bill.
For the 150 households, we are conducting ongoing investigations to determine whether they are eligible for the senior freeze and whether they must pay refunds back to Cook County’s taxing districts.
These exemption amounts were based on policy decisions by the office as many as 10 years ago. These exemptions have been updated to reflect our current policy.
Any errors with senior freeze exemptions were corrected before the Assessor’s Office sent its information to the Cook County Clerk and before tax bills were calculated for Tax Year 2020.
Q. The Sun-Times says this program transferred $250 million dollars from seniors to everyone else. What does that mean?
A. If you divide the cost of the senior freeze program up among all 1.9 million Cook County taxpayers, it’s about 14 cents per taxpayer.
Property tax exemptions, according to state law, provide tax bill savings to homeowners, seniors, persons with disabilities, and veterans. The senior freeze has been in place since 1994. Other exemptions and incentive programs cover commercial properties or affordable housing.
These exemptions and incentives do reduce property taxes for some groups in favor of others. But the Assessor’s Office does not establish these exemptions. Our office only administers and tracks the exemptions, based on state law.
In the context of its story, the Sun-Times says the senior freeze program moves $250 million from some taxpayers to others. While this is true, other exemption programs (like homeowners’ exemptions and senior exemptions) do the same thing.
In the context of the story, some have asked whether this entire $250 million figure is money that is going to people who do not qualify. This is untrue. It also does not mention the benefit the program gives to those low-income seniors who are able to remain in their homes despite gentrifying home values.
Q. What does the Assessor’s Office do to make sure only people who qualify for an exemption get an exemption?
A. Since becoming Assessor, Fritz Kaegi and his staff have identified and retrieved more than 11 million dollars owed by property owners who improperly claimed exemptions.
The Assessor’s Office’s Erroneous Exemptions Department is authorized under state statute to recover any property tax revenue lost as a result of improper exemptions.
In the past few years, the office has investigated 631 people who received the senior freeze exemption and returned 2.4 million dollars to the taxing districts of Cook County from those properties, which benefits both taxpayers and those who provide essential governmental services for schools, parks, libraries, and first responders.
The Erroneous Exemption department is currently investigating the households mentioned in the Sun-Times story that may have erroneously received exemptions in previous tax years. At the conclusion of that investigation, the Assessor’s Office will bill the taxpayer to recover any underpayment of taxes to the county and other districts, if warranted. This is a standard practice in our office, which ensures the timely mailing of tax bills and holds accountable those who claim exemptions improperly.
In 2020, the Assessor’s Office also engaged an outside vendor to augment the work of our Erroneous Exemptions department and expand the data we review to determine exemption eligibility.
Through this effort and prior to sending the exemption roll to the Clerk on July 7th, we audited more than 40,000 homestead exemptions, including the senior freeze, to identify properties that may be receiving an exemption they are not entitled to receive.
Each year, our office works diligently to ensure that all properties receive only the exemptions they are entitled to on their second installment tax bill. Throughout the year, when we become aware of facts that indicate someone may have received an exemption erroneously, we use the statutory remedy to see to it that money is collected for the taxing districts.
Q. Are there people who should be receiving the senior freeze exemption who aren’t? How does the office make sure seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities receive their exemptions?
A. We do approximately 200 outreach events each year, send out thousands of mailings to people who qualify, and send out press releases each year. Our website prominently features an exemption section and starting last year, all exemption applications were made available online for the first time in the office’s history. In addition, we send mailings to people who may qualify for exemptions who do not yet have them.
All of these actions are intended to make it easy for people to apply for the exemptions available through our office.
Q. Why not wait to send out the tax bills until you find every possible erroneous exemption?
A. New exemptions are applied for, or auto-renewed, every year. The overwhelming majority go to people who should receive them. Following the above procedures, we do extensive work to ensure the exemption rolls are correct.
But we sometimes discover erroneous exemptions after tax bills are mailed. The property tax code anticipates this problem, which is why we have an Erroneous Exemptions Department.
Delaying tax bills further for the remote possibility that less than 0.01% (literally one one-hundredth of a percent) of erroneous exemptions that might exist will hurt the very people who benefit from exemptions the most: seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and other homeowners who depend on government offices receiving the funds they need on time.
Moreover, it prevents schools from paying their bills, which ultimately hurts children. Other taxing districts would have to borrow money, which would mean taxpayers would be responsible for those interest payments, which would be far greater than one-one hundredth of a percent.
For more on property-tax-savings exemptions, please visit CookCountyAssessor.com.
UPDATE: A September 3rd Sun-Times story notes the Assessor’s Office is investigating properties for possible refunds of unqualified senior freeze exemptions. While the original Sun-Times story said there were “numerous errors”, the follow-up discusses only ten taxpayers and explains that some property owners may be able to prove they still qualify for these exemptions.