No excuse on double-dipping property tax exemptions

Truth editorial for Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011.
Posted on Sept. 28, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.

There are some things about property taxes that are really very simple, considering the complexities of reassessment, circuit breakers and the layers of tax rates that ultimately end up being our biannual property tax bill.

The simplicity is in what’s called the homestead property tax exemption. If you own a home, you get a property tax exemption if you fill out the proper paperwork. You only have to do it once unless you refinance, change the title or sell your home. And your lender and your real estate agent generally remind you numerous times before the deadline to file the forms necessary to make it happen.

It’s really that easy.

There’s one catch: You can only claim one homestead exemption (“homestead” meaning the place you live), so it has to be for your primary residence.

So easy anyone could follow those rules, right? As with everything in politics, the answer is no.

An Associated Press story earlier this week found that two candidates for high-profile offices in Indiana claimed more than one homestead exemption.

Brendan Mullen, running as a Democrat in our 2nd Congressional District, and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock — that’s State Treasurer Mourdock, the guy who handles our money at the state level — both have claimed the exemption on two properties.

Mullen said his error was “clerical” — he and his wife were getting the exemption on their Washington home and his wife’s former condo. The candidate says he found the error and has paid back the more than $1,000 in improper exemptions they received over two years.

Mourdouck’s situation also is troubling. He has received homestead credit since 2007 on his Evansville home and his Indianapolis condo. His spokesperson said the Marion County Auditor’s Office has accepted responsibility, but that Mourdock will pay back what he owes in November.

Whatever the excuse, homestead exemptions still are the personal responsibility of the homeowner. Politicians are not above that law. It’s not difficult to understand — you get the exemption on your primary residence only.

There are penalties for taking the deduction when you’re not supposed to — back taxes plus a 10 percent penalty on those taxes if the homeowner fails to notify the auditor of lack of eligibility.

Also, beginning in 2010, individuals or married couples claiming the deduction began receiving a verification form from the state in an effort to set up a secure statewide homestead database to fight fraud. According to the Elkhart County Auditor’s Office, you will receive a verification form one more time with your tax statements. If you don’t turn it in or don’t fill it out completely, you will lose your exemption. You can check whether you’ve filed the verification by calling the auditor’s office.

The deadline to apply for the homestead exemption is Dec. 31 each year.

To find out more about property tax exemptions, check out the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance website at http://www.in.gov/dlgf/2344.htm or contact the Elkhart County Auditor’s Office at 535-6720.

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