As a single parent in 1979, Ilene Thornton bought a condo in what even then was pricey Oak Park, because apartment owners wouldn’t rent to people with children.
Over the years, her job as a social worker helped her pay the mortgage and taxes. However, since retiring in 2010, she has lived on a fixed income that hasn’t risen at the same pace as her property taxes, which now average a little more than $2,000 a year.
Like many seniors, Thornton is faced with what for many may seem like an unfair decision: Leave the community she has grown to love and calls home for an area with lower taxes and fewer amenities or watch the pool of money for need-based and discretionary spending decrease.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and I really like where I live. I refinanced, so it’s really kind of stuck in terms of where I live,” she said.
At 69, she may go back to work in the near future.
Thornton was one of about 40 seniors and other residents who gathered at Dole Library Wednesday to hear Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar offer strategies to help senior homeowners stay put after retirement. The program is one of several informational programs the library expects to offer over the next several months.
“Anything that has to do with taxes I want to be educated about,” Thornton said.
ElSaffar gave the group an overview of how local property taxes work; how the $167,386,663 collected for 2013 is about 1.8 percent less than 2012; and the history of growth in local tax levies in relation to inflation. The 2013 tax levy is reduced because Oak Park District 200 lowered its levy to reduce a fund balance estimated to be in excess of $130 million.
“The high school had such a big decrease that it offset all the tax increases from the other taxing districts,” he said.
ElSaffar told the group the high school’s decision not to levy was a direct result of the 2013 village election. He encouraged members of the audience to become politically involved in the process because it can have a direct effect on taxes.
Michele Piotrowski, who moved to Oak Park in 1978, said Oak Park stands to lose an important part of the diversity it values.
“I believe in an intergenerational sense of diversity,” she said.
Even though they’re tired, seniors need to come together to have their needs heard and solutions worked out, Piotrowski said.
“We have to go from a whisper to some kind of respectful volume,” she said.
Senior tax strategies
Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar offers the following tax strategies to help senior homeowners living in the village make ends meet:
• Senior citizen tax exemption: Homeowners older than 65 years can sign up for the exemption, expected to help them save $612.50 this year.
• Senior freeze exemption: Seniors ages 65 and older and with incomes of $55,000 or less may qualify to have the equalized assessed value of their homes frozen to the year in which they apply. This does not freeze the taxes, just the base on which they are calculated.
• Senior Tax Deferral Program: Seniors ages 55 and older and with incomes less than $55,000 annually may qualify for annual loans of $5,000 annually, if there is enough equity in their homes. Similar to a reverse mortgage, principal and interest are paid when the home is sold or the taxpayer dies. Application deadline is March 1 each year.
• Appeal the assessed value. ElSaffar said there is no risk in appealing. Either the tax amount will remain the same, or a lower assessed value will be accepted and the taxes on which it’s based lowered.
ElSaffar warned not all solutions will yield savings, depending on each situation. For more information on these programs, visit www.oakparktownship.org or call 708-383-8005.