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House disappears from tax roll

Monday, March 24, 2014
Southtown Star
by Phil Kadner

Tom and Mary Lou Riley have lived in a house since 1978, but at some point it disappeared.

Well, it didn’t actually physically vanish from the face of the Earth.

But the 1,500-square-foot, single-story frame house in Hazel Crest disappeared from the records of the Cook County assessor for more than a decade, from 1996 to 2007.

As a result, the Rileys ended up owing Cook County about $17,000 in overdue property tax.

“Apparently it was listed as vacant property on the tax rolls, but we didn’t know that,” Mary Lou said. “They have a classification code on the property tax bills that would tell you it’s vacant property if you understood the code, but we didn’t know the code. All we knew is that our property tax bills kept going up, so we didn’t think anything had changed.”

Around 2006, she and her husband received a letter from their mortgage banker, indicating that they needed to put more money in their escrow account to cover their property tax payments.

It was then, Mary Lou said, that someone at the bank asked her if they had ever applied for a homeowners’ exemption, which can save a homeowner several thousand dollars a year in property tax.

The Rileys had not done so. But that was only the start of the problems that were to come.

“I think it was that same year that I called the Cook County assessor’s office in Markham because I wanted them to reassess our house,” Mary Lou said. “I just felt our property tax bills were too high.

“The man I spoke to told me there was no house on my property. I told him I live in the house, and there has always been a house on the property.

“Then he told me they couldn’t do the assessment because I called at the wrong time. Apparently, they have different times of the year when they send people out to do assessments for each township and Bremen Township, where I live, had already been done.”

Mary Lou made a note of the month when Bremen Township assessments were done and called back the following year.

“They told me the (assessment) month changes year to year, and I had missed the month again,” she recalled. “I told him I wanted my house reassessed, and he told me that he couldn’t assess my house because the land is listed as vacant.”

She informed him about the house’s existence.

“I’m talking to you on the phone on the wall in the house on that property,” she told the assessor’s employee. “And he tells me, well, you must own more than one piece of property. I told him I can’t afford to pay the taxes on the one piece of land that I have, why would I have two?”

Ultimately, the Rileys paid a visit to the county assessor’s office in downtown Chicago, where they were again told that their house did not exist.

“I told him to go to their own website, put in the PIN number for our property and look at the picture on the website,” Mary Lou said.

The employee did, and a picture of the Riley house appeared. The man became very upset, she recalled.

He said “this is going to cost you a lot of money” because the assessor could go back years and charge the couple with additional property tax because the property had been listed as vacant.

At this point, Mary Lou dips into a stack of paperwork on a living-room coffee table and pulls out a letter dated 1986 from Tom Hynes, the assessor at the time. That letter says Cook County is required by law to update its estimate of the market value of all property within the county and describes the Riley home in detail.

Nevertheless, in 2007 the couple were told that they would be penalized because the county had at some point determined that the land was vacant.

But yet another assessor’s office worker told them there was a way out of the predicament — they could simply sign a document stating that the home was new construction, built in 2004. That would mean they wouldn’t owe any delinquent property tax.

“I told him I wanted a lawyer to look at the document before I signed anything,” Mary Lou said. “And he kept talking about the thousands of dollars we were going to have to pay in property taxes for the previous years and I, well, I started to cry.”

Her husband intervened and said what I would guess a lot of husbands might say.

“This is Cook County,” Tom Riley said. “Let’s sign the thing and get out of here.”

And that’s what they did.

They still didn’t get their homeowner’s exemption, but in 2010 they did receive a tax bill for the years 2004 through 2007. The total, with interest for the unpaid taxes, came to a little more than $17,000.

“We had one year left on the mortgage,” Mary Lou told me. “But I had to take out another mortgage to pay the $17,000 in omitted taxes.”

By my calculations, the Rileys in 2007 alone paid $5,128 in property tax and another $4,793 in omitted property tax for $9,922 total. That’s a hefty tax bill on a tiny, old house.

“It’s so much more than what is correct,” Mary Lou said. “I don’t want to say fair because life isn’t fair ...”

Mary Lou, 61, lost her job when her company went out of business. Her husband was “downsized” out of a job and recently found employment at a substantial reduction in pay.

So they’ve decided to file an appeal with the county assessor, hoping to recover some of the excess tax money they believe they’ve paid over the years.

“We paid more than we should have for years because we didn’t get any homeowner’s exemption,” Mary Lou said. “We have to pay a $17,000 bill for their error that we didn’t create.”

As for the paperwork creating a “new home” on their property, it apparently has disappeared into the same black hole that their house occupied for more than a decade.

Taxes ought to make sense to the average person. The property tax system in Cook County defies all logic.

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