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Berrios: We are cracking down on property tax cheats

  • Written by Tim Hadac

A concerted effort to pursue property-tax cheats in Cook County has brought in almost $50 million in the last five years.

The news was announced by Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios at a Cook County Suburban Publishers luncheon held in the Loop late last week. About 40 publishers and their representatives attended.

Berrios, first elected assessor in 2010, said the Fraudulent Exemption Legislation of 2012 was written after he learned from a staff member that the assessor’s office had never done a comprehensive audit of the exemptions it grants (such as to those who live in the home they own, as well as senior citizens).

“So I said, ‘Let’s take a look at it, just to see what’s going on out there,’” Berrios added. “Lo and behold, we found that people are taking exemptions that they’re not supposed to.

“It took us two years to pass the law, but we stayed with it and fought for it,” he said, adding that the unit “doesn’t cost taxpayers any money because it is funded by the interest and the penalties we receive on this money. Then the rest of the money goes to whatever taxing bodies were affected by the erroneous exemption.

“So that’s $50 million, and we’ve only gone through about 12 percent of the county,” he continued. “Do the math, and you’ll see there’s a lot more out there. It’s a unit that saves taxpayers money. That’s money that each and every one of us pays because some people are cheating.”

Berrios said the unit “caught one guy — just one guy — [cheating the County out of] a million dollars. He would take over rental properties and then sign the leases to himself and then turn around and [sublet] those properties to someone else…and he’d take a homeowners’ exemption on each one of them. Now he’s in court, and we’re getting that money back for the taxpayers.”

On time, every time

Berrios recapped his office’s other successes, including the fact that property-tax bills have gone out on time for six consecutive years (with year seven coming up). Prior to his arrival, bills were late for 34 consecutive years—meaning that municipalities, school districts and other taxing bodies had to borrow money to cover the gaps. The absence of having to borrow has saved local taxing bodies tens of millions of dollars in recent years.

“When I began my duties as assessor, I took a look at the office I inherited and saw there were things that needed to be fixed,” Berrios recalled, saying that the typical work output at the office was far below that of the Cook County Board of Review, where Berrios had served for 22 years. “We needed to change the work mentality of the people in the [assessor’s] office…and we did. We got people to chip in, work a little harder. We got them additional training, got them to a point where they were comfortable with what they were doing, so they could do more cases and feel safe about doing them.”

The change in work ethic has yielded results across the board, he said, including on the front lines in his office.

“I had an elderly woman come up to me in the office — about a year ago — and she’s got a book this thick,” Berrios told the publishers. “So I asked her, ‘What are you doing with the book?’ She goes, ‘I used to come here in the old days. I always knew I was going to be here for two or three hours. So I figured I’d bring a book, sit in a corner and read.’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘No, you will not be here two or three hours.’

“She said, ‘Look I don’t want any special treatment.’ I said, ‘There is no special treatment. I’ll walk to where you’re supposed to go, and I’ll guarantee you’ll be out of here in 10, 15 minutes.’ I know that no one wants to wait, especially when you’re coming to a government office to fix a problem that they created.

“Sure enough, she was finished in 15 minutes — no special treatment,” Berrios added. “She stopped by my office on the way out to say thanks.”

Ready to help property owners

Berrios also encouraged all property owners to examine their assessment notices and tax bills carefully.

“When you get that notice in the mail, you should look at it,” he said. “If you think the assessment is too high, you should definitely appeal it. And we’ll help you with it.

“Our office is a service office. There are a lot of ways people can save money, including the senior citizen exemption, the homeowners’ exemption, the veterans’ exemption. If you are a disabled veteran, guess what? You save a bunch of money on your property tax bill. Some veterans can even have a ‘zero’ tax bill if they are 100 percent disabled. It’s something veterans deserve and should take advantage of.”

For more information, call (312) 443-7550 or visit cookcountyassessor.com.

Sales rise at Worth marijuana dispensary

  • Written by Joe Boyle

 

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                                                       Photo by Joe Boyle

Sales have improved over the past year for medicinal marijuana prescriptions at the dispensary in Worth

While sales of medicinal marijuana has not reached overall expectations in Illinois, that can’t be said for the dispensary in Worth, where business has been doing quite well.

“The Worth dispensary is doing well and the numbers are good,” said Steven Weismann, CEO of Windy City Cannabis. “But there are many more patients that want, but are being denied access to, medical cannabis.”

Weismann has seen a rise in medicinal sales at the Worth location, 11425 S. Harlem Ave. He also has Windy City Cannabis locations in Homewood, Justice and Posen. He visits the dispensaries each week and sometimes drops in at all four facilities in a day. He is encouraged by the response he receives in Worth and the other centers.

“The people who come in there are incredibly grateful,” Weismann said. “They tell us all the time.”

Worth Mayor Mary Werner also said that sales have improved and the village has grown to accept the presence of the dispensary. This is almost a complete turnaround from a year ago when the mayor voiced concerns during a “State of the Village” address if the dispensary was going to remain open.

“Initially, it was a lengthy process and expensive to get these medications,” Werner said. “I think we have eliminated those concerns. We have seen more sales since.”

Worth is doing better than some other medical marijuana facilities. Weismann is pleased that Senate Bill 10 passed in July 2016 that extended the expiration date for the pilot program from April 2018 to July 2020. Veterans and other individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are eligible for medical marijuana in Illinois. The disorder was added to the list in 2016.

Weismann’s initial worries about the pilot program was that many doctors were hesitant to suggest that patients be treated with medicinal marijuana. Doctors no longer need to recommend medicinal cannabis to patients. Instead, they can now “certify” that there is a doctor-patient relationship and that the patient suffers from a qualifying condition for medical marijuana with the passage of Senate Bill 10.

With the addition of PTSD in 2016, some ailments and diseases that Illinois law recognizes for patients who qualify for medical marijuana use with a doctor’s signature are cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and Washington, D.C. The drug still remains illegal under federal law.

While adding PTSD for medicinal treatment is a step in the right direction, Weismann said there are too many other ailments that are not being treated. The Rauner administration has rejected osteoarthritis and migraine headaches.

Werner is more optimistic about the program than a year ago when sales were slim. She helps to organize monthly meetings at the Worth Village Hall where patients provide testimonials about their health improvements through the use of medicinal marijuana.

Weismann said the facility in Worth is exceeding expectations and believes it will improve. However, he believes the Rauner administration could be more cooperative.

“There are many ailments not included in the current program that are included in other state programs,” Weismann said. “I think a great place to start would be to allow cannabis use as substitute for opioid pain medications.

“The governor has taken a very negative approach to medical cannabis, even though studies continue to show that medical cannabis is a safe and life-saving alternative to opioid pain medication,” Weismann added. “We should be encouraging and supporting anything that can help the opioid crisis in our state.”

More information can be obtained by contacting WindyCityCannabis.com.

 

Local mayors skeptical about GOP tax plan

  • Written by Joe Boyle

President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers said they delivered an early Christmas present to Americans and local businesses when their tax reduction plan was approved on Dec. 20.

However, some local mayors have stated that the tax plan will have little effect on their communities -- at least in the short term.

“I think with a lot of people we will have to wait and see,” said Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett, who is also the president of the Southwest Conference of Mayors. “It is a little top heavy with tax cuts for corporations, but we will see if it will trickle down to Palos Hills or other areas. I haven’t really talked to people about this. I just don’t know about that.”

Trump has stated that the bill will provide more jobs for Americans. However, critics aren’t so sure. According to an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, 63 percent believed the plan was designed to benefit corporations and the wealthy. Just seven percent believes the bill will help middle-class America, according to the survey.

Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar said that time will only tell.

“I hope the citizens recognize that we were able to hold the line on taxes and our tax levy,” Tokar said. “You don’t know what to believe. Are the Democrats telling the truth? Are the Republicans telling the truth? I guess we will see when we look at our paychecks later.”

Some large corporations have benefited from the tax plan. AT&T and American Airlines have offered $1,000 bonuses to their employees. Other corporations have stated that they will also offer similar bonuses to employees, including Boeing, Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo, according to published reports.

However, many Democrats said that a list of 32 corporations, including Home Depot, T-Mobile and Mastercard, have announced billions in stock buybacks. This means, according to Democrats, that higher dividends and executive bonuses are the likely response instead of wage increases for employees at companies that are receiving the tax reductions. No Democrats voted for the bill.

Worth Mayor Mary Werner also has her doubts but remains optimistic.

“There are literally people who say this is horrible, it will bankrupt us,” Werner said. “And there are other people who think this is great. Huge corporations are happy, from what I hear. “I’m hopeful that it encourages big business to come to our village. But I don’t know about that.”

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury does not see the new legislation providing vast changes for her village. However, she is concerned about young couples who want to buy homes.

“It’s going to significantly affect home prices,” Bury predicts about the new law. “Oak Lawn has been solid and steady with its home value. It’s not going to impact Oak Lawn, I think, but I don’t know. We will just have to see. It’s going to impact the younger generations who want to buy a home. And I feel for them regarding health care.”

Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton said he has no idea if the new legislation will result in any changes for his village.

“I hope it has a trickle-down effect for people and they come and spend money in our village,” Sexton said. ‘But I don’t know. I guess we will have to see.”

Sexton then paused and had another thought.

“It would be nice for people to be more charitable and help out others.”

Support pours in for injured firefighter

  • Written by Joe Boyle

clint sanders photo 1-11

 

                        Clint Sanders

Members of the Roberts Park Fire Protection District were in unison praising the dedication of Lt. Clint Sanders.

Sanders was injured on Dec. 27 as the Roberts Park Fire Department answered the call to put out a blaze at about 10:30 a.m. in a home in the 8800 block of West Fawn Trail in Justice. Sanders, 44, was transported to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood with smoke inhalation and burns to his hands and face, according to a hospital spokesperson.

The encouraging news for the department is that Sanders’ condition has stabilized even though he is still in critical condition and is being intubated. A hospital spokesperson said that Sanders, a Hickory Hills resident who is married and has two children, should make a full recovery.

“Clint is a very dedicated to his profession and is a great family man,” said Roberts Park Fire Chief Jeff Ketchen, who attended a fundraiser held Sunday afternoon at the Roberts Roadhouse in Hickory Hills to assist the family with expenses. “We had a great community effort. The place was filled to capacity.”

Ketchen has worked with Sanders for 24 years in the department. The fire chief said that Sanders was a positive influence on the force and his hard work and dedication was well known among the members.

The fire is still being investigated. The fire was put out in about 10 minutes. No other firefighters suffered injuries, Ketchen added. According to published reports, the fire began downstairs and spread upstairs.

Ketchen said that a Go Fund Me page has been set up by the family and Ketchen said over $46,000 had been raised before the fundraiser. The goal is to come up with over $100,000.

Ketchen said that it is too early to tell how much money was raised at the Roberts Roadhouse event. Guests began to file in early Sunday afternoon and took part in a variety of raffles while socializing and watching a Blackhawks game.

Rhett Golema is also a member of the Roberts Park Fire Department and has worked with Sanders for over 21 years.

“He is just a phenomenal person,” said Golema, a Palos Hills native. “I trust him with my life.”

Golema agreed with Ketchen and others who attended the fundraiser Sunday that it was a large turnout.

“It was pretty awesome,” Golema added. “I should mention that this (fundraiser) was formed by family and friends who are not part of the fire department. They did a great job organizing this.”

Golema said that the firefighters will hold a benefit for Sanders at a later date. Golema added that Sanders is improving but will remain hospitalized for a while.

“He is a stand-up guy and a great firefighter,” added Golema.

Sanders’ sister-in-law, Charlotte Johnson Sanders, also attended the fundraiser and was overwhelmed by the response. She posted on Facebook that “we are so humbled for the love and support you all have for our family. The amount of people who came out today was unbelievable.”

The money raised will assist in paying the mortgage and help with the tuition for Sanders’ children. The funds will go his wife, Sheila, to assist with these expenses while Sanders recovers from his injuries.

“I personally want to thank the whole community for the outpouring of support,” Ketchen said.

 

Our Lady of the Ridge parishioners fear school will change

  • Written by Joe Boyle

our lady of the ridge photo 1-11

Photo by Joe Boyle

Some parishioners are concerned that Our Lady of the Ridge Elementary School in Chicago Ridge will close at the end of the school year. A spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese said that no decision has been made about Our Lady of the Ridge or other Catholic schools at this time.


Some parishioners and parents of children who attend Our Lady of the Ridge School in Chicago Ridge said the school is destined to close in June.

Residents and parents have been discussing the issue for over the past month due to low enrollment numbers at the school, 10810 S. Oxford Ave. Enrollment figures were not available but not as many students returned this fall as had been hoped.

While some parishioners have said the announcement of the school’s closing will occur just before or during Catholic Schools Week, the Chicago Archdiocese said nothing has been decided.

“The Archdiocese has not made any decisions at this time about these schools,” said Susan Thomas, a spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese. “Right now, no decisions have been made.”

Another school whose future is in doubt is Incarnation Elementary School, 5757 W. 127th St., Palos Heights. Alumni, parents and community members held a fundraiser Sunday at Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park.

Andrea Covert, one of the organizers of the fundraiser who is attempting to keep Incarnation School open, said that members of Our Lady of the Ridge Parish attended the event Sunday in solidarity.

“”We have reached out to Our Lady of the Ridge and have invited students to attend our school,” said Covert, who added that the fundraiser drew over 600 people. “Why the archdiocese wants to close both our schools is a mystery.”

One of the parishioners who attended the Incarnation fundraiser was Marianne Gillfillan, school board president at Our Lady of the Ridge. She recalled that alumni, board members, parents, current students and the overall community turned out in force for a fundraiser that was also held last February at Bourbon Street to keep the school open.

Over 800 people attended the fundraiser a year ago, and Gillfillan said you could feel the excitement at the beginning of this school year. However, she said they lost not only their eighth-grade class but at least 35 other students.

“It hurt the situation immensely,” Gilfillan said. “The only way for any of the schools to stay open at this point is to have students. To get Catholic parents to invest in Catholic education these days is extremely difficult. A lot of it has to do with the money aspect. The parents that still invest in Catholic education today are sacrificing their (butts) off for their kids. There are parents out there who don't think it is useful anymore, or that it's a priority.”

Our Lady of the Ridge was given an opportunity by the archdiocese to raise over $250,000 and have an enrollment of at least 114 by the end of last February. The community came together, especially since it was announced that St. Louis de Montfort Elementary School in Oak Lawn was going to close.

Supporters of Our Lady of the Ridge were able to exceed those figures through an outpouring of support that led up to the fundraiser. However, some of those same supporters said it was difficult to sustain the fervor going into the school year.

Covert believes that a Catholic education is worth preserving. She adds that if Our Lady of the Ridge is going to close, that Incarnation would be able to provide for those students.

“It's important to keep the Catholic schools open,” Gilfillan said. “We will most likely have to find a new school for my son next year. He's in first grade so I've got a long way to go. I'm looking for a school with a sense of community, a strong sense of faith, and academics. We investigated Incarnation. We like it. It has a lot of similarities to Our Lady of The Ridge. I think it'd be a great fit for my son. I would like to see Incarnation continue.”

Regarding her participation at the Incarnation fundraiser, Gilfillan said a Catholic education is of the utmost importance.

“If I'm going to show up to the event, I'm going to donate, because that's what a committed Catholic adult does,” she added.

(Contributing to this story was Anthony Caciopo)