Government giveth, and government taketh away.
The giving was from economic impact payments from the federal government which were deposited in bank accounts across Lake County last week. The taking will be as county property owners get their real estate tax bills next month.
The federal and state governments ordered the delay of filing personal income taxes, but so far county officials have decided property owners will be getting their real estate tax bills on time. The first installment of property tax bills, which they should get next month, will be due in early June.
No one believes the $1,200 ($2,400 for couples) federal relief checks will go far in paying for groceries, utility bills, rent, mortgages or car payments. County property owners who don’t know when their next paychecks are coming due to circumstances caused by no fault of their own should be getting a tax break in these perilous financial times
But they won’t be getting one from some business-as-usual members of the Lake County Board. During a live-streamed session of the board’s Financial and Administrative Committee on Thursday on Comcast’s Channel 18, the panel decided against delaying tax collections or waiving late payment fees for a period of time during the COVID-19 crisis.
This despite thousands of county residents in the private sector unemployed or furloughed; hundreds of small businesses shuttered and the county’s hospitality industry decimated by stay-at-home orders issued by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
So far during the pandemic, few public employees have had their salaries cut or become jobless. Waukegan is one of the few governmental entities to furlough non-essential staff. The city is operating with minimum essential staffing under a mayoral emergency order, with the hope total staffing can return by May 1.
The full County Board will take up the committee’s recommendations at a currently scheduled May 12 remote meeting, once again telecast on Comcast Channel 18. Maybe by then, board members will have a change of heart when it comes to waiving late payment fees for taxpayers or come up with some plan for property tax relief.
That waiver has been proposed by a few Democrat state legislators — Rita Mayfield of Waukegan, Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove, Bob Morgan of Deerfield and Joyce Mason of Gurnee — representing Lake County districts. They have urged the County Board to implement provisions of the state tax code which consider conditions during economic turmoil like we’re experiencing.
If folks are struggling to pay for food, you can imagine where paying property tax bills ranks. The lawmakers point out the state code gives the County Board wide-ranging powers to provide tax relief when a county has been deemed a disaster area.
President Trump declared the entire state a disaster area on March 26 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The disaster declaration gives the County Board the power under state law to exempt penalties for property taxes paid late, they note.
In a statement, Mayfield called the committee’s vote, “the wrong approach.”
“These extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” she said, adding, “The Lake County Board should do the right thing” and waive late tax fees.
County officials, though, have little wiggle room when it comes to lowering property tax bills. The county’s portion of the tax bill is about 10 percent, spread between the county and forest preserve district. The largest amount goes toward local school funding and some communities, such as Gurnee and Vernon Hills, currently don’t levy a property tax.
The county committee did, though, vote to freeze the current salaries of Coroner Dr. Howard Cooper of Gurnee, Recorder of Deeds Mary Ellen Vanderventer of Waukegan and Circuit Court Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein of Gurnee for the next four years; seven County Board members up for election in November; and end the liquor commissioner pay of County Board Chair Sandy Hart of Lake Bluff.
The overall economic impact of the pandemic crisis has been staggering. Perhaps members of the county’s Financial and Administrative Committee haven’t been watching the daily epidemic updates of the governor and president.
It’s only common sense in this plague year to waive homeowners’ property tax late fees. We’ll see how the seven County Board members up for election in November — Hart, Linda Pedersen of Antioch, Diane Hewitt and Brent Paxton of Zion, Steve Carlson of Grandwood Park, Michael Rummel of Lake Forest and Terry Wilke of Round Lake — vote on the property tax waiver.
Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.