September 17, 2012 10:24 AM
A Tough Assessment
Cook County assessor’s office launches investigation to determine whether its employees are improperly gaining property tax breaks on their own homes.
By Patrick Rehkamp/BGA
The Cook County assessor’s office – the government agency that helps determine how much home and business owners pay in property taxes – has launched an internal audit following revelations that a politically connected employee may have improperly capitalized on a perk designed to ease the tax burden on senior citizens.
The agency offers seven so-called "exemptions" for property owners in Chicago and numerous suburbs – meaning if the owners meet certain criteria they can catch a break on how much they pay in property taxes.
One exemption provides home owners 65 and older with a reduction, which varies in size based on a variety of factors relating to their property.
Following a tip, the Better Government Association discovered the Oak Forest home of a long-time assessor employee named Janice Szabo has received a "senior exemption" worth more than $2,200 in reduced property taxes between calendar years 2006 and 2011.
The only problem: Szabo is 60 and her husband, who also holds title to the home, is 61.
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios (Tom Cruze~Sun-Times).
The BGA approached the assessor’s office about this, but the agency already had fielded a similar tip and determined Szabo did not deserve the exemption, said Kelley Quinn, spokeswoman for Assessor Joe Berrios.
Now, Szabo has been disciplined and the assessor’s office is conducting a review of all 350 or so employees to ensure any exemptions on their homes are appropriate and that nobody gamed the system, Quinn said.
Meantime, Szabo has been "asked to repay the money saved through the Senior Exemption," Quinn said via email. "We are currently conducting an office-wide audit pertaining to all employees’ residential exemptions."
Szabo, a 14-year employee who works as a liaison to township assessors, contends her elderly mother lives in the Oak Forest home, is on the deed and filed for the exemptions.
"My mother lives with us," Szabo told the BGA. "She’s been with us for 25 years. She’s 90 (years old)."
However, neither the assessor nor the BGA could find evidence that the mother was an owner of the property, which carries an annual tax bill of roughly $13,500. Szabo declined the opportunity to relay documentation to the BGA. Her mother, Gwen Basile, could not be reached for comment.
(In recent days, Basile and Szabo paid the county back for the senior exemptions, which amounted to more than $300 a year from 2006 through 2011, according to the Cook County treasurer’s office, which collects tax payments.)
The process for obtaining a senior citizen exemption through the assessor’s office is somewhat porous, making it relatively easy to abuse the system for those so inclined. People wanting the perk must fill out an application and show identification. No ownership documents are required, and there are only spot checks to determine whether the recipient is the property holder.
In Szabo’s case, Basile was the applicant, according to documents obtained from the assessor under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Quinn would not say how Szabo was disciplined, citing privacy concerns. But she was not fired.
Szabo makes roughly $66,000 and her husband Ronald Szabo also works for Cook County government, in the department that maintains public buildings. He’s paid around $79,000, and also serves as Bremen Township’s highway commissioner, an elected post that carries a $36,500-a-year salary.
State campaign records show that, over the years, the couple has donated nearly $3,000 to the Bremen Township Regular Democratic Organization, where both are officers.
Szabo’s case hasn’t been the only problem with the local property tax system.
Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia had what’s called "home owner exemptions" on two properties, although only one is allowed, on an owner’s primary residence.
Also in 2011, FOX Chicago reported that state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) was getting a home owner exemption on a property she apparently was not living in. Quinn said Berrios has been aggressively trying to ensure the integrity of exemptions since becoming assessor following the November 2010 election.
For instance, he’s pushed for state legislation that would make it easier for the assessor’s office to recoup money lost through inappropriate exemptions. About a decade ago – when Berrios was a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, which handles property assessment appeals – the Chicago Sun-Times detailed how two of his employees allegedly engineered undeserved tax breaks for themselves. They were ultimately fired.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp, who can be reached at (312) 386-9201 or firstname.lastname@example.org. BGA interns Nathan Lurz and Bailey Dick contributed to this report.