The Illinois Appellate Court recently handed down a decision in an election case (Jackson v. Bd. Election Commrs. of the City of Chicago) that has implications for the property tax system. The decision clarifies that unpaid property taxes are debts to the taxing agencies that filed the property tax levy, not debts to the County. As a result, candidates for municipal office can now be removed from the ballot for failure to pay their property taxes under a provision of the Municipal Code that renders people ineligible to run for municipal office who have a “tax or other indebtedness due to the municipality.”

The facts of the case were never in dispute. An objection petition was filed against the nominating papers of a candidate for Chicago alderman. The candidate had claimed homeowner’s 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 paid the approximately $3,000 in taxes she owed on her properties. But there was no dispute that at the time the candidate filed her nominating papers she was in arrears on her property taxes.

The candidate argued that the municipality did not have authority to enforce the property tax debt and that the municipality had told her that its records indicated she owed it no debts. The Court rejected these arguments because the plain language of the Property Tax Code clearly indicates that unpaid property taxes are debts owed to the agency that levied those taxes.

The Court pointed out that the County Treasurer is only the ex officio county collector. In essence, the County Treasurer serves an administrative function and acts on behalf of the taxing agencies for which it collects property taxes. It is the levy of the taxes by the taxing agency, however, that creates the obligation. Further, taxing agencies do have the ability to enforce payment of their property taxes because under the Property Tax Code taxing agencies may sue the county collector for failure to collect or distribute their property taxes under Section 20-155 of the Property Tax Code.

While the direct effect of the decision impacts only municipal elections, this is another in a series of decisions recognizing that taxing agencies are the true parties of interest in property tax matters. Although the County serves important administrative functions, it is ultimately the taxing agencies that filed their levies that are financially impacted by unpaid taxes or refund decisions.