CHICAGO
10/18/2012 03:51 pm ET

Shouldn't She Know Better?

This story is courtesy of the Better Government Association:

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office processes property tax payments, but back in the 1990s, while she was a county commissioner, she was pocketing three tax breaks for her personal property when only one was allowed.

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, whose agency is responsible for collecting property taxes from home and business owners, portrays herself as a budget “hawk.”

But she now acknowledges she was more of a dodo bird in the 1990s for accepting three home owner exemptions on her personal property when only one was allowed.

The Better Government Association found Pappas and her husband saved themselves more than $5,000 in the 1990s by improperly receiving the home owner exemptions – which are designed to provide qualified home owners with a break on property taxes for their primary residence only.

Instead of getting one tax break, as the law allows, Pappas received exemptions on two Gold Coast condominiums she owned, and on a Wilmette house under her husband’s name, according to county records and interviews.

The BGA asked the assessor’s office about this, and someone at the agency then contacted an aide to Pappas, who quickly refunded the improper payouts, according to Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for Assessor Joe Berrios.

Pappas refused to speak to the BGA, but in a written statement said: “For an eight-year period that began 22 years ago and ended in [tax year] 1998, I made a mistake in receiving more Homeowner Exemptions than I should have. When I realized it, my husband and I immediately paid those exemptions back.”

County records show that three Pappas exemptions were in place in calendar year 1992, 1994 through 1997, and 1999. Two exemptions were in place for calendar years 1991, 1993 and 1998. So the improper exemptions actually stretched out over nine years.

Each of the exemptions was worth roughly $400 a year in property tax savings. It’s unclear why the multiple exemptions ended in the late 1990s, although that’s when Pappas sold the Gold Coast condos and bought a condo in a nearby high-rise. Her husband’s Wilmette home was sold in 2003.

Pappas, who married her husband Peter Kamberos in January 1991, recently refunded $5,660 to the county to make up for the improper breaks they received.

In her written statement, Pappas said she and her husband owned separate properties before their marriage. Pappas was a county commissioner from 1990 until her election as treasurer in 1998.

Her agency has roughly 110 employees and its primary responsibility is to collect property taxes.

The savings from exemptions vary for land owners based on a variety of factors, including the size and location of their buildings.

The revelation about Pappas, whose official web site calls her a “hawk” on financial matters, is just the latest trouble in the program.

Recently, the BGA reported that Sauk Village Mayor and assessor’s office employee Lewis Towers received multiple home owner exemptions, and another assessor employee, Janice Szabo, was getting a senior exemption on her home even though she wasn’t a senior citizen. Both refunded the county.

Berrios’ office is in the midst of an agency-wide audit to ferret out county employees abusing the property tax system.
Pappas made headlines last year when the BGA and CBS2 disclosed she was using an employee to chauffeur her around, even to the gym. It also came to light that Pappas hired her personal cleaning lady to scrub her county office – for $57,000 a year.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp and CBS2’s Pam Zekman. They can be reached at (312) 386-9201 or prehkamp@bettergov.org.

Help the BGA shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable by becoming a member, contributor or tipster. Details at www.bettergov.org.

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