09/17/2012 01:23 pm ET

Cook County Assessor's Office Investigates Possible Exemption Abuse

This story is courtesy of the Better Government Association:

The Cook County assessor’s office – the government agency that helps determine how much home and business owners pay in property taxes – has launched an internal audit following revelations that a politically connected employee may have improperly capitalized on a perk designed to ease the tax burden on senior citizens.

The agency offers seven so-called "exemptions" for property owners in Chicago and numerous suburbs – meaning if the owners meet certain criteria they can catch a break on how much they pay in property taxes.
One exemption provides home owners 65 and older with a reduction, which varies in size based on a variety of factors relating to their property.

Following a tip, the Better Government Association discovered the Oak Forest home of a long-time assessor employee named Janice Szabo has received a "senior exemption" worth more than $2,200 in reduced property taxes between calendar years 2006 and 2011.

The only problem: Szabo is 60 and her husband, who also holds title to the home, is 61.

The BGA approached the assessor’s office about this, but the agency already had fielded a similar tip and determined Szabo did not deserve the exemption, said Kelley Quinn, spokeswoman for Assessor Joe Berrios.

Now, Szabo has been disciplined and the assessor’s office is conducting a review of all 350 or so employees to ensure any exemptions on their homes are appropriate and that nobody gamed the system, Quinn said.

Meantime, Szabo has been "asked to repay the money saved through the Senior Exemption," Quinn said via email. "We are currently conducting an office-wide audit pertaining to all employees’ residential exemptions."

Szabo, a 14-year employee who works as a liaison to township assessors, contends her elderly mother lives in the Oak Forest home, is on the deed and filed for the exemptions.

"My mother lives with us," Szabo told the BGA. "She’s been with us for 25 years. She’s 90 (years old)."

However, neither the assessor nor the BGA could find evidence that the mother was an owner of the property, which carries an annual tax bill of roughly $13,500. Szabo declined the opportunity to relay documentation to the BGA. Her mother, Gwen Basile, could not be reached for comment.

Click here to read the full investigation.

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