Issues related to property taxes extend beyond levies, collections, assessment appeals and refunds. Two recent decisions, one from the Illinois Supreme Court and the other from the Illinois Appellate Court, examine the interaction of property taxes with other areas of concern for school districts and units of local government. As both national and local elections approach, the Illinois Supreme Court’s treatment of the interaction between property taxes and ballot access is of interest to candidates and local election officials alike. And, the Illinois Appellate Court’s recent treatment of the interaction between the Property Tax Code and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is informative for those dealing with either aspect of government administration.

Property Taxes and Ballot Access

Recently, the Supreme Court overturned an Appellate Court decision we first reported in a March 2011 FR Alert regarding access to municipal ballots. The Supreme Court ruled that unpaid property taxes are debts owed to the county that collects the property taxes on behalf of taxing agencies, not debts owed to the individual taxing bodies that levy the taxes. Therefore, unpaid property taxes do not prevent a candidate for municipal office from appearing on the ballot.

Section 3.1-10-5(b) of the Illinois Municipal Code provides that a person is not eligible for elective municipal office if that person owes a tax or other debt to the municipality.  In Jackson v. Bd. Election Commrs. of the City of Chicago, a candidate had claimed homeowners’ exemptions on multiple properties for previous tax years, even though she was entitled to only one homeowner’s exemption. After filing her nominating papers, the candidate waived the extra exemptions and paid the approximately $4,000 in delinquent property taxes owed on her properties. There was no dispute that at the time the candidate filed her nominating papers she was in arrears on her property taxes.

The Supreme Court found that while local taxing agencies are the ultimate beneficiaries of the property tax system, the obligation of property owners is to pay their taxes to the county. The county then has the obligation to turn over the money collected to local taxing agencies. The end result is that property taxes are not a tax or debt owed to a municipality, and unpaid property taxes will not bar a candidate for municipal office from access to the ballot.

Property Taxes and FOIA Requests

In Sage Information Services v. Humm, the plaintiff sent a FOIA request to the chief county assessment office of Franklin County asking for an electronic version of the current real property assessment record file for the entire county. The plaintiff also sent a FOIA request to the Franklin County Treasurer asking for an electronic copy of the entire real property billing file for the 2009 tax year. The Supervisor of Assessments Office asked for payment in excess of the cost of the electronic media on which the data would be stored. The Treasurer’s Office responded that it did not maintain possession of the requested information in electronic format. In response, the plaintiff filed suit claiming the Supervisor of Assessments was requiring an excessive fee for the information in violation of the FOIA and seeking to compel the Treasurer’s Office to turn over the requested information.

The Appellate Court agreed with the plaintiff that any fee in excess of the cost of the electronic media on which the data would be stored was excessive. The key to the decision was a change to the FOIA made during the substantial revisions to the statute that became effective January 1, 2010. The prior FOIA language limited the fees that could be charged for information to the “actual cost of reproduction or certification, unless otherwise provided by statute.”  Under the FOIA statute as it existed prior to January 1, 2010, that meant the more specific provision of the Property Tax Code governed the fees that could be charged for property tax data. That provision of the Property Tax Code allowed the custodians of property tax records to charge “reasonable fees” for copies of property tax information. The 2010 changes to the FOIA now state that there are different fees for paper and electronic copies of information. Fees for information in electronic format may not exceed the “cost of purchasing the recording medium, whether disk, diskette, tape or other medium.” Thus, the Court concluded that the Supervisor of Assessments Office could not charge more than the cost of the CD for the information requested.

As for the Treasurer’s Office, the Court agreed that the Treasurer could not be compelled to turn over information not in his possession. Because plaintiff requested the information in electronic format and the Treasurer testified that he only maintained the information in paper format, plaintiff’s request under the FOIA was denied.

Both Jackson and Sage Information Services are instructive to those involved in administering government agencies. Jackson is interesting not only for the impact on municipal ballot access, but also for the principle that property taxes are owed to the county collector rather than the taxing body that actually levied the taxes. Likewise, Sage Information Services serves as a reminder to those involved with FOIA issues that changes to the FOIA have greatly expanded access to electronically stored information regardless of how extensive the request.