CROWN POINT | Lake County Treasurer John Petalas said thousands of home and business owners can banish millions of dollars of tax penalties and late interest payments under an upcoming amnesty program. They need to follow two simple rules.
He said the county will waive all late fees against anyone who failed to pay taxes either last year or prior years under two conditions:
• The property owner must come to Petalas' office and make arrangements to pay the old taxes and special assessments in full as well as all taxes due this year and next spring.
• The payments must be completed by July 1, 2013.
Petalas said the state Legislature enacted the amnesty this spring after five years of his personal lobbying.
He credited several Lake County officials with successfully impressing on legislators the program could generate millions of dollars that have been unavailable previously. Officials said delinquent property owners couldn't afford high late fees in addition to the overdue taxes.
Although the amnesty is available to any county that wants to offer it, the Porter County Council has yet to decide to join in.
Porter County Council President Dan Whitten said he expects a spirited debate at this month's meeting on whether offering amnesty sends the right message.
"I can't speak for everyone, but from my perspective, I have a real problem with one guy paying his property taxes on time and his neighbor not paying and then we forgive and waive all penalties and interest," Whitten said. "That doesn't seem fair to the guy who is paying on time."
Whitten said, instead of amnesty, the county also could pursue laggard property owners by selling their real estate to the highest bidder through tax sales.
Porter County Treasurer Michael Bucko said he has been in contact with a number of other county treasurers who also have mixed views about amnesty.
"I've had a few who said they won't even discuss it, and others who don't know where they are at on the subject," Bucko said.
Petalas said those counties only have until July 1 to opt in. He said he doesn't understand the hesitation by others.
"There is very little cost to the treasurer's office, and if you get any money at all, you are ahead," he said.
Lake County is targeting about 14,000 people who owe more than $160 million in overdue taxes, interest and penalties.
Most of those eligible already are at risk of losing their property in a tax sale Petalas will conduct in August. He said he notified them about the amnesty option by mail.
He said there are several hundred property owners whose properties aren't being auctioned off in the tax sale but are still eligible for the amnesty program. He said he hopes to reach them through the media.
He said those who will benefit the most from the program are delinquent businesses eligible to have tens of thousands of dollars in late fees forgiven as well as a small number of homeowners who have amassed penalties in excess of their house's market value.
"I know of one home in East Chicago that has $30,000 in late fees," Petalas said.
He said the public at large will benefit, too, if the amnesty generates even a fraction of the overdue taxes.
"I'd be happy if we got somewhere between $5 million and $10 million back," Petalas said.
Petalas said some businesses can afford to pay their delinquency in one lump sum and already have contacted his office with plans to pay.
He expects most will need to pay through installments and advises them to apply as soon as possible after the program's July 1 start. The July 1, 2013, deadline to pay will not be extended.*
Petalas also warns the amnesty program likely will be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, and a better deal will not be available in the future.
He also said anyone who signs up but fails to pay his or her taxes in full before the deadline will have the late fees reapplied and will not be eligible for any future installment plan for the next five years.
* Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version. A story in Sunday's editions omitted information about the Lake County treasurer's office amnesty program. The program will start July 1. The Times regrets the error.