Almost a year after busloads of frustrated seniors from Friendship Manor were transported to the county assessor's office to apply for the homestead property tax exemption, the law has been changed, allowing residents of the facility to receive the tax credit.
Friendship Manor residents will receive credit for the homestead property tax exemption, thanks to legislation sponsored by state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, and state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 3093 into law Aug. 24, It amends the property tax code, stating a general homestead exemption given to a life care facility must be credited to the owner or resident who qualified for the exemption.
In December, the facility at 1209 21st Ave., Rock Island, transported dozens of residents to apply for the exemption in person in sub-zero weather, with no guarantee they would be approved. Assessor's office staff told Friendship Manor development director Jeff Condit that residents had to apply in person.
Condit was relieved to hear about the new bill.
"Of course, we are tickled," he said. "We thought the legislation was clear prior to this. The fact it passed House and Senate easily — everyone agreed this was clear all long. This is what was always intended.
"We wish the legislature had passed it retroactively. We continued to pass the savings to our residents. We did what was right by those we serve."
The tax credit previously only applied to the owner of the facility. Prior to the law, Condit said the facility was passing the $500 annual savings along to its residents until 2015, when officials were notified by chief county assessor Larry Wilson that residents no longer qualified.
"It was never the intent of the law to have this removed from Friendship Manor residents," McCombie said. "It puts Friendship Manor in line with the other 91 facilities in the state that have this exemption."
When the exemption was taken away from Friendship Manor, the facility sued the county. Since Rock Island-Milan School District receives 60 percent of Friendship Manor's property taxes as revenue, Wilson added the school district as an intervenor defendant in the suit.
Circuit Court Judge Clarence Darrow ruled in favor of the county on June 10, 2016, stating Friendship Manor residents had no ownership claim in their apartments and therefore, did not qualify for a homestead exemption. The ruling cites a residency agreement between Friendship Manor and residents that states, "resident understands and agrees that this residency agreement is for services and is not a lease and that resident is not acquiring any right or interest, possessory or otherwise in the real estate or property of the Manor Place."
Darrow's ruling stated, "there is no evidence that any of Friendship Manor's residents are owners of record."
An appeal filed by Friendship Manor was dismissed by Darrow.
The amended law will apply to the 2018 tax year. According to the Rock Island County Assessor's site, to qualify for the senior homestead exemption, applicants must have reached the age of 65 during the assessment year, and have lived on the property on or before Jan. 1.
In the House, the bill passed unanimously with only one opposing vote, state Rep. Jesiel, R-Winthrop Harber. There were no opposing votes in the Senate.
State Rep. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island, abstained, citing a conflict of interest between his law firm, McCarthy Callas & Feeney P.C., and Friendship Manor. It was Halpin's law firm that represented Friendship Manor in its lawsuit against the county.
"I was very glad it passed," Halpin said.
"I need to give credit to Representative Halpin because he was instrumental in explaining the process of what was going on with those folks," McCombie said.
Condit said residents who applied in December still have not heard back from the assessor's office whether they received the tax credit. He said residents will receive about $1,000 per year in tax savings for both the general and senior homestead credit.
"If you don't get the general credit, you don't get the senior credit," Condit said. "This year, we were told the cut off was August 30, but we have no confirmation of it. It's not really our application, it's the residents' application.
"It was only one person (Wilson) who thought it should be taken away. To our knowledge, this was his decision exclusively. We are required by law to pass along this savings. We are a non-profit; we don't have stockholders."
Wilson could not be reached for comment.
"It restores some hope that there are some sensible people out there," Condit said. "We are grateful for that."