Illinois property tax waivers costing schools millions

ST. CLAIR COUNTY, IL - Our investigation led us to lavish homes on golf courses and lakes, where homeowners pay no property taxes.  We found it in Illinois, a place where homeowners usually pay the highest property taxes in the nation.

It’s causing a crisis for kids.  One school district in St. Clair County alone says this tax break is costing it more than a million dollars already.  It’s looking at what kids` programs to cut.  Meanwhile, we looked at people getting the tax break and in some cases, it`s putting a $1,000 a month in their pockets.  One search of public records took us to a half million-dollar lake home in Caseyville.  You can see a pool in the back, along with a hot tub.  According to public records, the homeowner paid more than $23,000 in property taxes over a three-year period.  Then in 2015, the tax bill dropped to zero.

We found several homes like it on one street in Lebanon, IL.   Three homes within one-tenth of a mile, brought in a combined $100,000 in property taxes from 2012-2014.  In 2015 the collective bill dropped to zero.  Our Fox Files investigation found 2,400 homes in St. Clair County taking advantage of a tax break passed in 2014.  It passed unanimously in Illinois, because no one can argue with the intentions.  It’s a tax break for disabled veterans.  Vets in the high-end homes declined to talk on camera.  The wife of one veteran told me off camera “It`s not like we don`t cut corners.”  Only one veteran would tell me his disability, one of which he said was sleep apnea. He told me, “A lot of us are putting in for sleep apnea.”  85-year-old East St. Louis veteran Eugene Benton fought in Vietnam and said he`s 100% disabled from Agent Orange related cancer.  Benton is not taking the tax break.  Benton told me, “Well I told him I wasn`t going to worry about the $1,500.”

I asked, “Why not.”

He answered, “I don`t know.  I figured I still get by.  They were paying me and my wife.  My wife passed so I still get little over $4,000 a month.”

I followed up, “And you say that`s enough?”

Benton continued, “Yeah plus I get retirement pay for where I was working at so I do alright.”

Benton says the schools need the money.  He thinks the tax break should only be for veterans who really need it.  He explained, “Some of the veterans that are having all these problems, some of it don`t come from being in the war.  It`s from what they were doing after they got in there, different places they went.”   Dozens of parents and students poured into an O’Fallon Township High School meeting last week to discuss the impact.

One parent said, “I thought wow, you know if it’s getting bad enough that they're cutting sports! Yikes.”  Superintendent Dr. Darcy Benway said they're getting squeezed from many angles.  She said the disabled veteran property tax shortfall may get worse.  She told the audience, “Right now we’ve lost about $1.2 million.”   State Senator Kyle McCarter, who says his father is a disabled vet, is trying to change it.  He said, “All or most welfare is means tested.  I mean you have to show that you have a true need before you`re going to receive benefits.”  McCarter says he even voted for the disabled vet property tax break.  But before it was signed into law he said he realized it should be capped so no one could get more than $5,000 back.  He said he warned Governor Bruce Rauner.  Sen. McCarter said, “It’s hard to stop it.  You can’t say let’s all stop now and put my amendment in there.  Those kinds of things seldom happen.”   McCarter wants the law fine-tuned and property taxes only eliminated on disabled vets who live in a $300,000 home or less.  He added, “To be honest it`s tough.  It`s tough for politicians to do anything that appears as though they`re going to harm a veteran.  And this is this is politics.”  McCarter says his bill would also expand the break to include Congressional Medal of Honor winners and former POW`s.  Governor Rauner’s office sent the following statement, but did not directly answer my question about the waivers and Sen. McCarter’s assertion.  A Governor’s spokesperson wrote, “Illinois families pay the highest property taxes in the country, which is why the Governor has been pushing to freeze property taxes for all Illinois residents.”