Determination of Oak Park Seniors Leads to Change in State Law

 

 

In late 2013, Robert and Stacia Taylor were concerned about their property taxes.  The annual income of the retired Oak Park couple was less than $55,000, making them eligible for the Senior Citizen Freeze property tax exemption.  But over a four year period, the amount they were saving from the Senior Freeze had fallen from $4,221 to $0, resulting in a 31% increase in their property taxes.

The Taylors were upset by this, and organized a group of senior citizens from their condominium building to visit their local Township Assessor’s office.  “We had spent our lives working and contributing to our community, and were upset that a program designed to help us after we retired was not working,” said Stacia Taylor.  “We wanted to understand what was going on.”

The reason for the decline in savings from the Senior Freeze is that property values had been falling.  The Senior Freeze exemption was designed to protect senior citizens on fixed incomes from the higher taxes sometimes associated with rising property values.  But taxes can also go up when property values fall, and the Freeze offered no protection for this type of tax increase. 

When the Taylors and their neighbors met with Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, they found that he shared their frustration.

“A lot of seniors on the Freeze were seeing big tax increases and came to my office assuming there had been a mistake,” ElSaffar said.  “I had to tell them ‘yes, you have qualified for the Freeze, but no, you will not see any savings from it.’ Those were difficult conversations.”

The Taylors appreciated ElSaffar’s understanding, but wanted more; they wanted to change the law so the Freeze would provide tax relief to all who qualified for it.  This gave ElSaffar an idea, and he and the group of seniors set up a meeting with State Senator Don Harmon to discuss it.

ElSaffar’s idea was simple:  allow the savings under the Senior Freeze to be as high as currently allowed under the Freeze law, but add a floor below which the savings could not fall.  This ‘Freeze Floor’ would provide savings for all seniors who qualify for the Freeze, regardless of whether their home’s value is rising or falling.

Senator Harmon responded favorably to the Freeze Floor proposal.  But before sponsoring it in the legislature, Harmon suggested that ElSaffar do further research on the proposal.  ElSaffar’s research uncovered a remarkable fact—in 2014, 41% of seniors who qualified for the Freeze in Cook County received no savings from it.

ElSaffar reported his research to his colleagues in the Cook County Township Assessors Association and to the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.  All of these tax offices had experienced problems with the Freeze providing no savings, and agreed to support the Freeze Floor. 

In 2015 and 2016, Senator Harmon sponsored a bill to create a Freeze Floor.  The bill won overwhelming bi-partisan support in the Senate in both years, but went nowhere in the House.

In 2017, Assessor Berrios tried a new approach, proposing a much broader tax relief package.  In addition to the Freeze Floor, the package increased the Freeze income limit from $55,000 to $65,000 while increasing the value of other homeowner and senior exemptions.  The House and the Senate passed this version of the bill, and Governor Rauner signed it into law on August 25. 

Since most property values are rising again, one might wonder if the Freeze Floor took too long to pass.  ElSaffar acknowledges that more seniors would have been helped if the law had passed a few years ago, but maintains that it will still help many seniors.  In addition, he points out, Freeze recipients now have some protection if property values fall again.

As for the Taylors, “we’re thrilled that a meeting with our local Township Assessor led to a change in the law of the State of Illinois.”  Robert Taylor added that “there’s a lot of cynicism about government these days, and it did take a while for the law to change.  But in the end, elected officials at all levels truly listened to our concerns.”

 

September 20, 2017

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