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Cook County passes COVID property-tax relief
But will deferred payments hurt towns that rely on this revenue stream?

Thursday, May 21, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by A.D. Quig

The Cook County Board approved some relief for property taxpayers today, agreeing to waive late-payment interest penalties for two months.

Bills are still technically due on Aug. 3 but can be paid as late as Oct. 1 without running up late interest charges. The change, negotiated over several weeks between county leaders and designed to ease the economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic, involves billions of dollars of second-installment property tax bills.

Officials said they expected many and perhaps most payments would be made on time, since many homeowners pay monthly into escrow accounts held by their mortgage company. But some public testimony suggested late payments would put municipalities and small governing bodies at risk.

“Because of the lag time between collection and distribution of tax monies to local governments, real estate taxes collected in October will not reach the cities, villages, and other taxing bodies until November or December,” attorney Burt Odelson, who represents several small municipalities, wrote to commissioners. Without sales taxes to get them through the “lean” summer months, municipalities will struggle to provide “essential services of police, fire, ambulance, public works, and other assistance given to the public on an everyday basis,” he said.

But the delay passed, as did a slew of COVID-related measures, including the extension of the county’s disaster declaration through Sept. 30, 2020, and authorization for the county’s budget director to make budget transfers worth more than $50,000 during the same period.

Both only came up against slight pushback from commissioners, including Republican Sean Morrison, who said the budget authority came without a cap and that there was “absolutely no physical reason” commissioners could not meet virtually to approve spending. He suggested commissioners were giving up the fiduciary oversight they were elected to execute. He voted no on the disaster proclamation and budget authorization. Commissioner Bridget Gainer voted no to the disaster declaration, arguing the need for more transparency. Commissioner Bridget Degnan voted against the budget change and said commissioners should be more involved in budget decisions, not less.

Budget Director Annette Guzman said the transfers made regularly over the past two months were on COVID-related spending, including on personal protective equipment and building up the county’s surge capacity. “The decisions have to be made very quickly,” Guzman said, because vendors often demand it.

The Cook County Board has not met as frequently or in the same capacity since the COVID crisis began. Board President Toni Preckwinkle has instead briefed commissioners in groups of four during lengthy Sunday night calls and has made hospital and finance officials available for questions from commissioners directly.



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