Hitting The Tax Brake

Yet another public official improperly reaps tax breaks on personal property – and issues a refund when confronted.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo

An influential state legislator is the latest Chicago-area political figure caught improperly accepting more property tax breaks than the law allows.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) owns a single-family home and a two-flat next door to each other on the 2400 block of North Nordica. He lives in one; his daughter in the other.

The Better Government Association found that for nearly a decade Arroyo benefitted from a "home owner exemption" on both buildings – a tax break that’s supposed to apply only to a property owner’s principal residence, not investment or rental properties.

The BGA recently inquired about this with Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ office, which contacted Arroyo. He, in turn, promptly refunded more than $4,400 in improper property tax relief he’s received since buying the two-flat in 2003.

Subsequently reached on the phone, Arroyo told the BGA it was an honest mistake, and said he was sorry.

"Everybody makes mistakes," he said. "I apologize to the taxpayers. I paid the money that was owed back and we’ll go from there."

Arroyo said he doesn’t recall applying for the second exemption. (A home owner exemption carries a property tax break that varies based on factors such as a building’s size and location.)

In fact, he said he didn’t even know about the exemption because his accountant deals with his property taxes.

Regardless, Arroyo is just the latest political name to come to light for abusing, purposely or otherwise, tax breaks.

The BGA previously reported that Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and recently resigned Sauk Village Mayor Lewis Towers, who also works for the assessor’s office, were securing more property tax breaks than they were entitled to. Both eventually issued refunds.

Such instances illustrate just how badly the perks have been monitored over the years. To that end, Berrios has been supporting legislation that would help his office more easily punish abusers. Right now, there’s little recourse for the assessor to recoup money other than to publicly embarrass those gaming the system.

"Over the past year, we have had everyone from local government officials to county and statewide elected officials repay money that they have saved through multiple homeowner exemptions," Kelley Quinn, a Berrios spokeswoman, said via email. "It is clear that this is a problem of significant magnitude and that it needs to quickly be addressed."

Berrios is politically aligned with Arroyo; they each donated to each other’s political campaign funds over the years, state records show.

Arroyo was in the news in recent weeks after he asked Metra’s board of directors to rename a train station in his district after late-great ballplayer Roberto Clemente – and seemingly suggested that state funding could get cut if he didn’t get his way.

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JANUARY 2011 FOX 32 reports Stickney Village President Dan O’Reilly was getting several home owner exemptions.

APRIL 2011 FOX 32 reports now-former state Sen. Annazette Collins was claiming a home owner exemption on a property outside of her legislative district, where she’s required to live.

SEPTEMBER 2011 CBS2 reports Northlake Mayor Jeffrey Sherwin was receiving multiple home owner exemptions.

OCTOBER 2011 The Chicago Tribune reports Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia was receiving a home owner exemption he wasn’t entitled to.

SEPTEMBER 2012 The BGA reports Janice Szabo, a Cook County Assessor’s Office employee, was receiving a senior exemption she didn’t deserve.

SEPTEMBER 2012 The BGA reports now-former Sauk Village Mayor and current Assessor’s Office employee Lewis Towers was receiving two home owner exemptions.

SEPTEMBER 2012 FOX 32 reports former state Sen. Louis Viverito and Bridgeview Mayor Steve Landek, who’s also a state senator, were getting exemptions they didn’t deserve.

OCTOBER 2012 The BGA and CBS2 report Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and her husband were receiving three home owner exemptions in the 1990s when she was a county commissioner.

NOVEMBER 2012 FOX 32 reports wealthy private citizens have been improperly receiving multiple exemptions.

NOVEMBER 2012 The BGA reports state Rep. Luis Arroyo was receiving two home owner exemptions on his Northwest Side properties