It's not every day that there's positive news about property taxes in Oak Park. In fact, it's pretty much never, but thanks to the perseverance of a local couple, seniors across the state should see some good news in future tax bills.
In 2013, armed with a rising property tax bill and a fixed retirement income, Robert and Stacia Taylor of Oak Park made an appointment to visit Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar.
Though wrangling relief from Springfield took almost four years, with the help of State Sen. Don Harmon, the Taylors are pleased that the bill for relief passed this summer.
Back in 2013, the Taylors became concerned about their rising property taxes on their Oak Park townhome. As retirees, their annual income was below $55,000, making them eligible for the senior citizen freeze on their property taxes, but over a four-year period, they had noticed that their savings from the freeze had fallen from $4,221 to $0, resulting in a 31-percent increase in their property taxes.
"We'd lived here for 47 years," Stacia Taylor said. "Oak Park was a good halfway point for us, because Bob worked on the South Side, and I worked downtown. We had a very good perspective on taxes after living here so long. We wanted to retire here, but if we couldn't afford to stay here, it would have been a major life change to figure out where to go."
Noting that almost all referendums for schools have been successful, ElSaffar said, "Taxes have gone up so much in Oak Park that it puts stress on everybody, particularly those with fixed incomes."
For Stacia Taylor, it was eye opening.
"We had the collapse in home prices, but our taxes were going up," she said. "We were well into retirement and on a fixed income."
As a retired CPA, Stacia Taylor says that she and her retired engineer husband had kept records going back decades, so they put together a few spreadsheets to share with ElSaffar.
Problem with the formula
ElSaffar says that the issue was readily apparent.
"The senior freeze was premised on a rising housing market," he said. "As a society, we don't want people forced out of their homes because of taxes, but as designed, no one ever thought about what happens to the tax freeze when the housing market goes down."
He began hearing from other seniors in the same boat, who wondered if they had failed to properly apply for the freeze. He recalls telling seniors who contacted him, "Yes, you did apply. Yes, you qualify, but you are not benefitting anymore."
ElSaffar suggested that the Taylors and their neighboring seniors from their townhome complex call on Harmon as a group, and he proposed a simple solution to Harmon.
"When dealing with Springfield, simple is better," ElSaffar said. "My idea was, why not guarantee a floor or minimum for the freeze?"
The "freeze floor" proposal would allow the savings under the senior freeze to be as high as currently allowed under the freeze law, but it also would add a floor below which savings would not fall.
This would provide savings for all seniors who qualify for the freeze, regardless of whether their home's value was rising or falling.
Harmon liked the idea and asked ElSaffar to research the issue a bit more. What he uncovered showed him that the problem was more widespread than he realized. In 2014, 41-percent of seniors who qualified for the freeze in Cook County received no savings from it.
ElSaffar shared his research with colleagues in the Cook County Township Assessors Association and with the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. They agreed to support the Freeze Floor proposal.
A long and winding road
In 2015 and 2016, Harmon sponsored a bill that would create a freeze floor, and even though the bill had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, it failed to gain support in the House.
Earlier this year, Berrios tried a new approach and proposed a broader tax relief package, which included the freeze floor and increased the freeze income limit from $55,000 to $65,000.
The package also increased the value of other homeowner and senior exemptions. Both the House and Senate passed this version of the bill, and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it into law on Aug. 25.
ElSaffar said that in Oak Park, the new senior freeze law will be implemented for 2017 taxes, which are paid in 2018. He says that the relief should show up in the second installment tax bill, due in August 2018.
"There are a lot of changes coming next year," ElSaffar said. "The reassessment level will take effect, but in any case, this law will leave seniors better off."
According to ElSaffar's calculations, 68,000 low-to-moderate income seniors will benefit, and the minimum tax freeze benefit for years when property values decrease will be $2,000.
Stacia Taylor says the relief next summer will be like "Christmas in July," and credits the Wall Street Journal with giving her the idea of contacting ElSaffar.
"We read an article on the best assessors in the country, and Ali's name was on there," she said. "We thought we should go see him. A lot of seniors are not comfortable coming to talk about issues like this, but Ali is very approachable."
ElSaffar applauded the couple's efforts to see this bill come to fruition.
"The whole story reminds me of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," he said. "It's how government ought to work, but it doesn't always."
Answer Book 2017
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