Gary H. Smith
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Senior Tax Freeze in the Heat of Summer

By Gary Smith
Senior Tax Freeze in the Heat of Summer

Cook County senior citizens over the age of 65 and with a household income of less than $65,000 a year are eligible for a property tax break called the Senior Freeze Exemption that freezes the equalized assessed value of the property. However, oversight of this program is lax, allowing people to take advantage and shifting the tax burden on the rest of the county’s property taxpayers.

Investigation Finds Issues With Senior Freeze Exemption

An investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times found that:

  • Cook County Assessor’s office made numerous errors in calculating the property tax savings under the senior freeze program, which totaled $250 million last year in savings for eligible seniors.
  • The county’s mainframe computer often undervalues properties, and the assessor’s office doesn’t have the staff available to check, verify and recalculate all of the 144,904 properties covered by the senior tax freeze.
  • Seniors do not need to provide proof of their income on tax returns to qualify for the program. They just need to provide a notarized document swearing their total household income isn’t higher than the maximum allowed.
  • People who might not otherwise qualify for the program but who live in an apartment co-op, retirement home, or other large property that receives a single property tax bill might still pay less under the program because there is one overall senior freeze granted to big properties, based on residents who qualify.

Other states that have similar programs require seniors to submit income tax returns and provide for audits to be performed. However, the way the legislators who created the freeze left the details vague and doesn’t provide the Cook County assessor the legal authority to challenge a person’s household income.

The Cook County Assessor’s office is working with legislatures to close the loopholes and strengthening the office’s audit ability. It’s also exploring options that include limiting senior freeze exemptions to those whose homes are under a certain market value or requiring a tax form to be submitted for a number of years.

The way the property tax system is set up, when properties pay less it places the burdens on other properties to pay more. It’s incumbent on property owners to ensure that all of the information on the assessment is correct and to file an appeal when it is not. Incorrect information can include the number of rooms, age of the house, square footage or Property Index Number, or PIN.