Kadner: Cook County tax system confounds, as planned
Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-6787 July 5, 2012 10:38PM
Updated: August 7, 2012 6:31AM
When Ronald Schmidt opened his property tax bill this week and saw that he owed zero dollars, he didn’t have the reaction you might expect.
“My reaction was, ‘Someone at the assessor’s office made a mistake, and now I’m going to have to waste two hours of my life straightening this thing out,’ ” the 80-year-old retired printer said.
I came upon Schmidt, sitting on a folding chair amid about 50 other people with complaints about their tax bill, outside the Cook County assessor’s office in the Markham courthouse.
Although Schmidt lives in Posen, the property in question is in unincorporated Stickney Township.
“I inherited it about three or four years ago from an uncle who died,” he said. “I razed the house on the property, which is pretty substantial, and once had an offer of more than $200,000 for it. Like a fool, I turned it down and then the market collapsed.”
I told Schmidt that most people would have rejoiced over the tax bill he received and avoided calling attention to it, hoping the county had made a mistake.
“I know they would have eventually hit me up for interest and penalties for late payment,” he said. “So I figured I better get it straightened out.”
As people like Schmidt waited in a hallway outside the assessor’s office, more property taxpayers occupied about 75 chairs inside the lobby of the office. Each had been handed a slip of paper with a number when they arrived, asked to fill out a basic form and then told to take a seat until their number was called.
Shirley and Harold Neubauer, of Oak Forest, arrived at 8:10 a.m. They had been waiting to get into the office’s inner sanctum for more than an hour when I arrived.
“Three times we filed paperwork for the senior citizen’s exemption, and we didn’t get the exemption on our property tax bill,” Mrs. Neubauer told me. “They say they never received it. I don’t believe that. We filed it twice, and our tax preparer filed it once on our behalf. This is ridiculous.”
Most of the property owners at the assessor’s office were seniors, and many had the same complaint — their property tax bill lacked exemptions to which they were entitled.
Suburban township assessors I spoke with Thursday said their offices also had been “inundated” with complaints, primarily from seniors.
“It’s been three years since they (legislators) forced property owners to file for the senior citizen exemption (which used to be automatically renewed),” Grace Bardusk, Bremen Township assessor, said. “The first year I had seniors come in complaining, I figured the process was new and it would get better. The second, I thought it’s still new and there are some problems.
“But three years in a row. There’s something wrong with the system. And I filed some of the exemptions for the seniors, and they still weren’t recorded.
“Many of them were filed with the office in Oak Brook, and I don’t know if they’re outsourcing work or what, but they don’t seem to make it downtown.”
Township assessors in Cook County, unlike the rest of the state, have no real authority when it comes to assessing property or creating tax bills.
“So when a correction needs to be made,” Bardusk said, “we have to either send people to the (county) assessor’s office in Markham or send the paperwork in to get a correct property tax bill. We can’t print them here.”
Virginia Hoekstra, of Lynwood, was confused because she was refused a senior freeze exemption this year, which is based on income, although her income had not changed.
“We received a letter telling us we didn’t get the senior freeze because our property taxes were lower with the 7 percent expanded homeowner exemption, and you can’t get both,” she said.
There are so many property tax exemptions in Cook County that it’s easy for people to get confused.
As for Schmidt, it turned out the assessment for his property had been cut in half. His first installment tax bill for 2011 was estimated based on a 2010 assessment. He was told that he’s actually due a refund of $10, which is why the payment line read zero dollars.
Schmidt shook his head and said, “Well, the good news is I don’t owe them money. The bad news is my property isn’t worth a damn.”
In addition, instead of wasting two hours, he was out of the assessor’s office in under 90 minutes.
I will say the assessor’s office in Markham seemed to run efficiently.
But many taxpayers, even after hearing an explanation and getting help, walked away confused.
It seems clear the process is designed to confound.