Written By Jonah Meadows Patch Staff
WAUKEGAN, IL — A divided Lake County board voted Tuesday to extend property tax deferrals to all taxpayers rather than limiting the relief to operators of non-essential businesses and some qualifying laid-off employees. Instead of the usual two installments, taxpayers will be able to spread their payments over four installments without having to pay late fees.
The first installment of property tax bills is due on June 8. Under the new plan, only half of the first payment will be due at the time. The other 50 percent is due by Aug. 7. Likewise, the second installment, which had been due Sept. 8, now will not be considered late until Nov. 9. All Lake County taxpayers are set to receive notice from the treasurer’s office about the deferred payment plan through the mail in about two weeks.
But the original plan presented to the board by Finance and Administrative Committee Chair Paul Frank, a Highland Park Democrat, did not extend relief to all taxpayers. Instead, it required residents to declare under penalty of perjury that they had lost their job after March 9 after being employed for at least 90 days — or that they operate a shuttered “non-essential” business and have not received federal aid. It also excluded commercial property owners by requiring a homeowners’s exemption.
Frank said the board had very limited options. He said Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim first suggested the board did not have the legal authority to waive fees or delay collections before offering a revised opinion allowing for the deferral. Frank said the application-based proposal was the result of months of effort.
“As much work as we’ve put in on the topic, the simple truth is we are extremely limited by state law and the practical needs of our schools, our fire districts, our fire protection districts, our municipalities, our first responders. There are very few options for us in this regard,” Frank said. “This ordinance attempts to find a narrow opportunity for those who are in need to assistance to modify their payments and thereby waive late fees.”
“Many taxpayers in need will be unaware that the county board passed this ordinance and will not know about the application process. Tens of thousands of our struggling neighbors will not be able to reap the benefits of this ordinance,” Kim said, advocating delaying the due date for part of their property tax payments for all residents. “There’s nothing unfair about allowing all of our neighbors to defer a portion of their property tax payments, and it is impossible to implement this in the 19 calendar days to develop an application process and qualify them under the ordinance.”
Ann Maine, a Lincolnshire Republican, introduced an amendment to remove the application process from the ordinance. She said it was clear no one in the county had been left unscathed by the pandemic.
“The sorts of trouble and the suffering and the loss of business, this is going to continue as a hemorrhage, so we need to do everything that we can for everyone,” Maine said. The application process “while well-meaning, is not sufficient,” she added, introducing her proposal.
“Instead of trying to cull through and figure out what criteria to say that someone has been impacted, I think we should recognize that everyone has been impacted,” Maine said. “I know that our taxing bodies have been impacted, and the process did not allow us to give them the greater notification which I certainly would have appreciated. But they’ve had to cut their expenses too, just as we have on the county board.”
The amendment was opposed by several board members before it was approved 17-4. After initially declining to vote on Maine’s amendment, Frank voted in favor of it once it was clear that it had the votes for passage.
Terry Wilke, a Round Lake Beach Democrat, was one of those who voted against the amendment. He said he was interested in supporting a four-installment plan in the future, but he could not support anything that was not “means-tested.” (The application process he supported was not means-tested.)
John Wasik, a Grayslake Democrat, said the board was unable to offer a tax break to everyone. He said fire departments should not have to reduce staff costs and schools should not have to cut services due to the ongoing economic collapse.
“I think we can all agree that we’re all committed to getting through this crisis the best way we can. But the clouds on the horizon are darkening. Unemployment could equal or rival the Great Depression. Kids may not be going back to their classrooms this fall. People could lose their homes. Life as we know it will be challenging, vexing and unfair. The new normal is brutal,” he said. “In a perfect world we’d all be offering a tax break to everyone, but we can’t. Some 90 percent of it is not our money. While we’d all like to offer genuine property tax relief — something only Springfield can do — I’m committed to protecting our front line local services.”
Jennifer Clark, a Libertyville Democrat, said she opposed extending the property tax deferral to all taxpayers this year but would be open to considering a four-installment plan in future years.
“I’ve had people in tears saying that if they don’t get the majority of their revenue on schedule, because it’s in a few weeks, they will have to lay people off. That is, Lake County residents that are at the front lines that are going to lose their jobs because these taxing bodies, these first responders, these townships are not going to have their money,” Clark said. “This is the very last time that we need to be changing their finances, because they’ve all seen decreases in all sorts of funding and some depend 100 percent on this levy. I do not want to be the board responsible for making the decision that’s going to lead to job losses in this county.”
Hawthorn Woods Democrat Jessica Vealitzek also opposed Maine’s amendment extending the deferral to all taxpayers.
“We need to find the balance and do the good that we can without inadvertently doing too much harm,” Vealitzek said. “I’m real nervous about doing too much harm to our local taxing bodies.”
Lake Forest Republican Mike Rummel spoke in support of Maine’s amendment. He pointed to remarks from county planning staff about severe economic suffering experienced by local landlords, who were not eligible to apply for the deferral under the proposal, as well as the impact on business owners who own the property where they operate. He called for the elimination of “arbitrary criteria” for determining who has suffered as a result of the coronavirus.
“Who are the 21 of us to judge who’s suffering? Do you really have the right to say, ‘OK, if you didn’t check the box, you’re not suffering?'” Rummel asked. “I want to do the best for all of us, and it’s splitting this into a four-pay and splitting this into something that is workable, and people can take advantage of it if they need to.”
Marah Altenberg, a Buffalo Grove Democrat, said the amendment was a good one for small businesses who have largely been failed by the Small Business Administration process.
“I care deeply about the taxpayers in Lake County, whether they be individual taxpayers or businesses,” Altenberg said. “I feel like the original resolution isn’t going to help small businesses enough, and they need our help.”
Vernon Hills Democrat Julie Simpson supported the amendment, warning the opt-in application process carried a potential legal cost.
“I do understand that it could have negative impacts on some of the taxing bodies, and for that I’m sorry,” Simpson said. “There’s no precedent for this. I don’t want to be the test case in this, and the only test case in this, and I do believe we will be sued if we pass the ordinance, as written. I don’t know that we’ll lose, we might still win, but I’m trying to figure out what happens with those tax dollars while this precedent is being set.”
Craig Taylor, a Lake Zurich Republican, voted in favor of the amendment but expressed discomfort with the whole process.
“We are going to be making differentiations in selecting those who do have a hardship as opposed to those who don’t. That’s problematic,” he said. “We’re more or less just shifting and dumping it in her lap to figure out how the heck she’s going to do the collections. So at this point, as much as I want to give relief to those that are hurting — we’re all hurting — I’d have to go along with the amendment and say, if we’re going to do it we should be fair to all of our taxpayers and everybody should get some relief, and unfortunately to do that then we throw the other taxing bodies under the bus. I would be for the amendment but actually I don’t think I’m for any of this.”
Board members also voted to establish a COVID-19 recovery and relief committee. The special committee is set to help county staff plan for and allocate federal funding provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. At their May 12 board meeting, members voted to allocate $2.4 million in federal money to local nonprofits helping residents with housing, food and utilities. The new committee’s first meeting is set for Friday.