What the Gov: Which Governments Are Looking Into Property Tax Help?

Amid pandemic, two suburban county boards have OK’d financial relief from late fees or interest payments for some homeowners while other county officials — including in Cook County — remain mum. A few lawmakers say they’d like to explore if the issue can be addressed statewide.

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.

As Illinois’ shelter-in-place order remains in effect and financial hardships swell, the Better Government Association has continued to receive dozens of questions from readers about what’s in place or being planned to provide help on property taxes.

The BGA first wrote about this topic earlier this month as part of its ongoing “What the Gov” series that aims to answer questions about the coronavirus pandemic. There’s been lots of important talk about rent relief, but many readers also want to know whether the government will provide any assistance for property owners.

“Do we get any property tax relief regarding covid19?” one reader asked us earlier this week. “We get reduced work hours.”

The answer is sort of, and it depends on where your property is located.

Since we last wrote about the topic, some county governments in the Chicago suburbs have moved forward on providing relief not on full property tax bills but on interest payments and penalties for those who don’t pay their tax bills on time. Others, including Cook County, have not, leaving residents wondering if their local leaders will do the same.

As of this week, officials in Kane, McHenry and Lake counties have discussed variations of plans to temporarily waive late fees or interest payments for the first installment property tax payments due in June.

Kane County officials voted unanimously to allow a 30-day waiver of late fees on first-installment payments and the McHenry County Board approved a 90-day grace period.

“The federal and state government are going to be the main drivers when it comes to relief, but McHenry County is going to actively pursue whatever measures it can to help,” McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said in a news release.

It is important to note that neither the Kane nor the McHenry ordinance applies to residents who pay their property tax bills through escrow installments, which is the case for a large number of taxpayers in each county.

In Lake County, a board committee chose for now not to delay any property tax collection, saying some local government officials were concerned about their financial stability without the expected cash flow from first installment payments. But Paul Frank, chair of the Lake County Board’s financial & administrative committee, said he still may consider other undefined property tax assistance measures in the future, according to the Daily Herald.

DuPage County Treasurer Gwen Henry said the DuPage board next week will discuss provisions to aid taxpayers who can prove a financial hardship relating to the COVID-19 crisis.

Officials in Will and Cook counties have yet to tackle what to do.

One issue that keeps popping up is whether county elected officials have the legal authority to even make such a decision. Some pointed to an Illinois law that they say only allows for a waiver of late fees on property taxes when a natural disaster has been declared.

The same question came up in McHenry County, but officials had a different interpretation of the law. They noted the state statute grants county governments the authority to waive late fees once the governor or president makes a disaster declaration that includes the county in question, but did not specify that it needs to be a natural disaster to apply.

While the law also technically requires property owners to individually apply for help by showing proof of financial hardship to the county, McHenry County Civil Division Chief Norm Vinton said an economic hardship of this magnitude would be unrealistic to manage on a case-by-case basis and he is not concerned about legal challenges, according to the Northwest Herald.

Some readers have asked what the state’s responsibility is. “Is the Governor going to put a moratorium on paying property taxes?” one reader asked us. “He has a say!”

So far, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has punted that responsibility to the counties. Still, a few state lawmakers have said they plan to introduce legislation to mandate a 90-day statewide waiver of property tax late fees.

Whether that happens or not, though, remains unclear. The Illinois General Assembly’s current session is suspended due to the coronavirus crisis and it is unclear when lawmakers will be called back in.