Lake County panel says no to delay in property tax deadlines

After lengthy discussion Thursday, the Lake County Board's financial and administrative committee opted not to delay property tax collection or waive late fees because of COVID-19 pandemic.

Mechanisms of some type to help those in need eventually could surface, but in the short term, property tax bills will be issued, collected and distributed as usual.

"We're looking for the best way to help them without hurting our other taxing bodies," said committee Chairman Paul Frank, a Democrat from Highland Park. "This is the start of the conversation not the end of it."

State law sets a penalty of 1.5% per month on any unpaid installment balance after the due date. While county boards can waive fees if an emergency has been declared, that authority is tied to a natural disaster and refers to physical damage, not an economic downturn, according to Assistant Lake County State's Attorney Karen Fox.

In that case, property owners would have to apply for a waiver which would be reviewed to ensure they met criteria. Some board members suggested crafting guidelines to address a financial crisis.

"I would support something to soften the blow for those who really need it, but we need something in there to stop the free riders," said committee member Terry Wilke, a Democrat from Round Lake Park who also serves as Avon Township Supervisor.

Examples include people who could pay on time but chose not to, or banks that collect property taxes through escrow.

"Waiving a fee is the same thing as moving a deadline. The banks would likely pay later," explained Lake County Treasurer Holly Kim.

"I want to avoid the banks sitting on this money," added committee member John Wasik, a Democrat from Grayslake.

The possibility of waiving late fees was floated last week by four state legislators.

Board Chairwoman Sandy Hart emphasized that the state's attorney's office said there is no legal authority to waive fees or delay collections.

"I am concerned that just 12 people (a majority of the 23 members) on this board could make a decision that affects all the other taxing bodies," she said.

One clear outcome from the discussion was that the county - which is responsible for sending bills, collecting the amounts due and distributing the proceeds to various taxing bodies - does not plan to delay the scheduled due dates of early June and early September.

For the most recent cycle, the county collected $2.4 billion in property taxes. The county's share is about 7%, or $163 million.

Just the possibility of a delay unleashed an outpouring of comment from all quarters. Many local governments said their operations would be devastated without timely payments.

"In my 18 years (on the board) I've never seen so many public comments so one-sided (and) cohesive," said committee member Steve Carlson, a Gurnee Republican.

The Vernon Township Board on Friday will consider a resolution urging the county board to delay the property tax payment deadline by two months for property owners impacted by COVID-19.

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