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Berrios: We are cracking down on property tax cheats

  • Written by Tim Hadac

A concerted effort to pursue property-tax cheats in Cook County has brought in almost $50 million in the last five years.

The news was announced by Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios at a Cook County Suburban Publishers luncheon held in the Loop late last week. About 40 publishers and their representatives attended.

Berrios, first elected assessor in 2010, said the Fraudulent Exemption Legislation of 2012 was written after he learned from a staff member that the assessor’s office had never done a comprehensive audit of the exemptions it grants (such as to those who live in the home they own, as well as senior citizens).

“So I said, ‘Let’s take a look at it, just to see what’s going on out there,’” Berrios added. “Lo and behold, we found that people are taking exemptions that they’re not supposed to.

“It took us two years to pass the law, but we stayed with it and fought for it,” he said, adding that the unit “doesn’t cost taxpayers any money because it is funded by the interest and the penalties we receive on this money. Then the rest of the money goes to whatever taxing bodies were affected by the erroneous exemption.

“So that’s $50 million, and we’ve only gone through about 12 percent of the county,” he continued. “Do the math, and you’ll see there’s a lot more out there. It’s a unit that saves taxpayers money. That’s money that each and every one of us pays because some people are cheating.”

Berrios said the unit “caught one guy — just one guy — [cheating the County out of] a million dollars. He would take over rental properties and then sign the leases to himself and then turn around and [sublet] those properties to someone else…and he’d take a homeowners’ exemption on each one of them. Now he’s in court, and we’re getting that money back for the taxpayers.”

On time, every time

Berrios recapped his office’s other successes, including the fact that property-tax bills have gone out on time for six consecutive years (with year seven coming up). Prior to his arrival, bills were late for 34 consecutive years—meaning that municipalities, school districts and other taxing bodies had to borrow money to cover the gaps. The absence of having to borrow has saved local taxing bodies tens of millions of dollars in recent years.

“When I began my duties as assessor, I took a look at the office I inherited and saw there were things that needed to be fixed,” Berrios recalled, saying that the typical work output at the office was far below that of the Cook County Board of Review, where Berrios had served for 22 years. “We needed to change the work mentality of the people in the [assessor’s] office…and we did. We got people to chip in, work a little harder. We got them additional training, got them to a point where they were comfortable with what they were doing, so they could do more cases and feel safe about doing them.”

The change in work ethic has yielded results across the board, he said, including on the front lines in his office.

“I had an elderly woman come up to me in the office — about a year ago — and she’s got a book this thick,” Berrios told the publishers. “So I asked her, ‘What are you doing with the book?’ She goes, ‘I used to come here in the old days. I always knew I was going to be here for two or three hours. So I figured I’d bring a book, sit in a corner and read.’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘No, you will not be here two or three hours.’

“She said, ‘Look I don’t want any special treatment.’ I said, ‘There is no special treatment. I’ll walk to where you’re supposed to go, and I’ll guarantee you’ll be out of here in 10, 15 minutes.’ I know that no one wants to wait, especially when you’re coming to a government office to fix a problem that they created.

“Sure enough, she was finished in 15 minutes — no special treatment,” Berrios added. “She stopped by my office on the way out to say thanks.”

Ready to help property owners

Berrios also encouraged all property owners to examine their assessment notices and tax bills carefully.

“When you get that notice in the mail, you should look at it,” he said. “If you think the assessment is too high, you should definitely appeal it. And we’ll help you with it.

“Our office is a service office. There are a lot of ways people can save money, including the senior citizen exemption, the homeowners’ exemption, the veterans’ exemption. If you are a disabled veteran, guess what? You save a bunch of money on your property tax bill. Some veterans can even have a ‘zero’ tax bill if they are 100 percent disabled. It’s something veterans deserve and should take advantage of.”

For more information, call (312) 443-7550 or visit cookcountyassessor.com.