Kadner: A $17,000 tax error to be corrected
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 15, 2014 10:22PM
Mary Lou and Tom Riley in front of their Hazel Crest home, which for 12 years was listed as nonexistent on Cook County's tax rolls. They eventually paid $17,543 to the county in back taxes, but a recent column by Phil Kadner led the assessor's office to r
Updated: May 17, 2014 6:23AM
Mary Lou and Tom Riley, owners of a Hazel Crest house that disappeared from Cook County property tax rolls, will be getting a refund check for more than $17,000.
I originally wrote about their tax trouble last month.
Although the couple have lived in their home since 1978, the single-story house mysteriously vanished from the records of the Cook County assessor’s office from 1996 to 2007.
After the office learned of the situation, the Rileys were notified in 2010 that they owed the county more than $17,000 in overdue property tax because their property had been underassessed as vacant land for more than a decade.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince the assessor’s office that the mistake was Cook County’s and not theirs, the Rileys remortgaged their home and paid the tax owed.
They explained that the financial setback couldn’t have come at a worse time because the Rileys had each lost their jobs, although Tom finally found employment at a substantially reduced income.
“This is like a miracle from heaven,” Mary Lou said during a telephone conversation Tuesday. “Do you often have people cry on the phone?”
A spokeswoman for county Assessor Joseph Berrios said the office determined that the amount owed could be reduced due to three factors: “There was an error in the way the property was valued. They were originally charged for interest, and the interest charges were removed. The homeowner exemption was applied to the property for (prior) years (when) it was not applied.”
The Rileys never applied for the standard homeowner exemption, which can cut thousands of dollars a year off a property tax bill, until they were notified about the unpaid property tax.
Although the Rileys filed what’s known as a certificate of error with the assessor’s office, “we never, ever expected to get that money back,” Mary Lou said.
The original amount billed was $17,544 and the revised amount owed is $171, according to a spokeswoman for the assessor. The Rileys now only have to sign an application form for the refund, and they’ll get their check.
Berrios was not the assessor when the original error occurred under former Assessor Tom Hynes. It continued under Hynes’ successor, James Houlihan.
I’ve written about this sort of thing before, and no one can ever offer a reasonable explanation for the mysterious ways of the assessor’s office in Cook County.
For example, in 1987 the Rileys’ house was officially acknowledged as existing in a letter from Hynes to the Rileys that described the house in detail, stating it had an estimated market value of $52,100.
Their tax bills from 1996 to 2007 did not reveal in plain language that their property had been listed as vacant. Mary Lou said she only found out about that when she went to the assessor’s branch office in Markham to appeal her property tax bill, which had gone up.
She was told at that time that she couldn’t file a tax appeal because there wasn’t a house on the property. Yet, on the assessor’s website, a picture of the home appeared.
During a subsequent telephone conversation with another assessor’s employee, Mary Lou said she was again told there was no house on her property and replied, “I’m talking to you on the phone on the wall in the house on that property.”
During a later meeting with an employee from the assessor’s office in downtown Chicago, the Rileys were told yet again there was no house on their property, and they told the employee to check the assessor’s website.
Upon seeing the photo of the house, the employee became agitated and told the couple, “this is going to cost you a lot of money.”
Explaining that their property had been underassessed for years, he offered the Rileys a deal. They could sign a document saying that the home was new construction, built in 2004, and that would mean they didn’t owe any delinquent property tax.
After initially resisting, (Mary Lou said she wanted a lawyer to look over the document), Tom said he signed because “this is Cook County.”
However, that document apparently became lost, and the Rileys were later told they had to pay the unpaid property tax in full, plus interest.
By my calculations, the Rileys in 2007 alone paid $5,128 in property tax and another $4,793 in omitted property tax for $9,922 total. That seemed like a huge bill on a tiny house in Hazel Crest.
During an interview for my initial column about their situation, Mary Lou, 61, said didn’t mind paying her “fair share” of tax but didn’t understand why they had to pay interest for an error that wasn’t their fault.
She expressed gratitude to former Bremen Township Assessor Grace Bardusk for helping the Rileys file the proper paperwork to get a certificate of error and “whatever angel exists in the county assessor’s office to make this happen.”
This is the second time that Berrios corrected such an error as a result of a column I wrote, and he deserves credit for doing the reasonable thing.
Too often in the past, when I’ve confronted government officials about errors made by their predecessors’ administrations, they simply pointed a finger of blame at the other guys and said there was nothing to be done.
Fairness is all that most people are seeking, along with a reasonable explanation of how their tax bills are calculated.
And that brings me back to one of my favorite topics — the twisted and nearly incomprehensible calculations that result in Cook County property tax bills.
The only people who benefit are politically connected law firms that make millions of dollars filing property tax appeals.
The system seems designed to benefit them, while confounding property taxpayers.