A Towering Problem?

As Cook County residents struggle with staggering property taxes, another politically connected employee at the assessor’s office is caught with improper exemptions on personal property.

Lewis Towers is seeing double.

He holds two government posts: mayor of Sauk Village, and manager of the Markham branch of the Cook County assessor’s office.

And he owns two properties, one in Sauk Village, and one on Chicago’s South Side.

Recently, Towers was hit with a two-week suspension from his assessor’s job after it came to light he was double dipping on "home owner exemptions" issued by the agency he helps run – meaning he took advantage of property tax breaks on both of his houses when only one of the buildings should have qualified, the Better Government Association has learned.

He’s just the latest employee of the assessor’s office – which helps determine how much home and business owners in Chicago and Cook County’s suburbs pay in property taxes – caught allegedly gaming the tax system they help oversee. A spokeswoman for Assessor Joe Berrios acknowledged the problem and insisted officials are doing what they can to root out violators within county government.

"Each and every employee is held to the same standard when it comes to understanding the exemption process," said the spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn. "That is why we’re doing an office-wide investigation and asking each employee to repay any money they may have saved through improper exemptions."

This past Monday, the BGA reported that assessor employee Janice Szabo was getting a senior exemption on her home even though she wasn’t a senior citizen and therefore shouldn’t have qualified. Szabo, 60, paid back the savings and was "disciplined," according the assessor’s office.

In Towers’ case, he improperly saved $4,400 in property taxes on his South Side home from calendar year 2001 through 2009, said Quinn. He has since returned the money.

Cook County residential property owners are allowed to claim one home owner exemption – on their primary residence. Exemption savings vary based on factors such as the size and location of the property.

Towers, 62, told the BGA he was renting out his South Side home and the person living there was responsible for the property taxes, although Cook County treasurer records show Towers paid them.

"We were leasing it out," Towers said. "Now that’s all I can give [you]. I’m trying to move on." 

Towers has worked in the assessor’s office for 21 years and makes about $89,000 annually along with roughly $19,000 as the mayor of Sauk Village, a south suburb. He was elected mayor in 2009.

His wife, Maxine, is also an elected official in Sauk Village, serving on the school board for Community Consolidated Schools District 168. Their son, Quincy Towers, works for Dorothy Brown in the Office of the Circuit Clerk of Cook County making around $39,000 a year.

Quinn said Berrios, who also serves as the head of the Cook County Democratic Party, has no political affiliation with Towers.

Quinn also said there likely are more instances of Berrios employees improperly securing exemptions. The office employs roughly 350 people.

"We haven’t hit the end," Quinn said.

BGA intern Nathan Lurz contributed to this report.