What the Gov: Cook County Property Taxpayers Have Two Extra Months to Pay Their Bills

Property owners may still get their August bills in the mail soon but the county won’t penalize late payments until after Oct. 1.

Justin German/BGA

This article is part of a series called What the Gov?, where the BGA takes reader questions and tracks down the answers. We are devoting resources to covering how local and state governments are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. We are committed to reporting on what you want to know. Ask your questions here.

Employees at the Cook County Treasurer’s Office later this month are expected to begin preparations to mail out property tax bills for homes and businesses throughout the county.

Most years, taxpayers who missed the August deadline were penalized late fees. But this year taxpayers will have through Oct. 1 to pay the bills, a move made by the Cook County Board to ease the financial hardships many residents are facing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although taxpayers will have two extra months to pay, the second installment due date remains Aug. 3. That means Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office still must print, prepare and mail bills on the same time schedule as every other year and her staff must do so amid a global pandemic.

“If I had a statute that said that I could do this, I would just tell everybody your bills are on the internet,” said Pappas, who suggested in April that the county board approve the financial assistance measure. “Unfortunately, the statute says I have to mail them out.”

Pappas said the process of preparing the bills to be mailed out on time requires 20 staffers working for more than two weeks. She said she hopes to start this year’s process later this month but acknowledged she will have to be flexible as some of her employees are caring for sick relatives or are unable to travel on public transportation.

“This is not easy,” Pappas said. “We’re taking it day by day.”

The Better Government Association has been writing about property tax relief during the COVID-19 crisis as part of its ongoing “What the Gov” series that aims to answer questions about reactions of local governments to the coronavirus pandemic. For months, readers have asked us what property tax assistance, if any, they could expect while they grapple with the economic hardships born from the pandemic.

Our answers were as varied as the plans debated in counties across Illinois. While some county officials adopted assistance packages as early as April, others insisted any change to property tax collection would violate state law. Leaders in some counties worried that allowing a delay in property tax payments would hurt cities and other governments that rely on those funds.

Meanwhile, residents in Cook County and other counties that didn’t take on the issue were left wondering if and when their government officials would do anything to address one of the largest bills homeowners and businesses face.

The plan Cook County passed unanimously in May is similar to those enacted in Kane and McHenry counties in April. Yet neither of the collar county ordinances apply to property tax bills paid through escrow installments, which accounts for a large number of taxpayers.

The language of the Cook County measure does not specifically exclude escrow payments, but a spokesman from the treasurer’s office said they are encouraging banks to pay by the original due date. Michael Cabonargi, chairman of the Cook County Board of Review, told Crain’s Chicago Business that an estimated two-thirds of property tax bills are paid through escrow accounts, and on-time payments by banks will limit the financial impact the delay will have on towns and other governments in the county.

Typically, late fees equal 1.5 percent of the total property tax bill owed per month. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the decision to temporarily waive those fees was “the right thing to do,” as the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis continue to wreak havoc on many residents’ finances.

“These are incredibly difficult times for our residents and this measure creates much-needed breathing room for Cook County property owners,” Preckwinkle said in a statement.