WORTHINGTON — During an emergency meeting via Zoom Tuesday morning, Nobles County commissioners unanimously approved reductions in the penalties for property owners who are unable to make their May 15 property tax payment in full due to ramifications from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who pay their property taxes between May 16 and June 30 will be assessed a 1% interest penalty, which is a reduction from the standard 2% interest penalty if paid by June 1, and the 4% interest penalty if paid between June 1-30. Individuals who delay payment until July 1-31 will be assessed a 2% penalty, which is a reduction from the standard 5% penalty.

The action came after considerable discussion about perceptions among those who paid their taxes on time, and ramifications for the county and subsequent taxing authorities when property owners delay payments.

As of Tuesday morning, 34 Minnesota counties had authorized some sort of property tax abatement program as a direct result of COVID-19, according to Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson. In many cases, the counties offered up to a 60-day delay in tax payments, he added.

Auditor-Treasurer Joyce Jacobs cautioned commissioners on the need to treat all taxpayers equally and consistently and not provide relief only for certain taxpayer groups. She urged taxpayers to pay what is owed by May 15, or at least pay what they can. The remaining balance would then include a penalty, albeit reduced, which would be a fair solution to all taxpayers.

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“The ones who have paid early and paid up front have found a way to pay it,” said Commissioner Gene Metz. “There isn’t anybody that isn’t affected by this (situation). I’m hoping the majority would have found a way to make this payment.”

While Metz said he favored waiting until after May 15 to make a decision, Commissioner Matt Widboom disagreed, saying he didn’t want to give the taxpayers uncertainty. He said he liked the approach taken in Lyon County with the 1% and 2% penalties, and ultimately made the motion to incorporate the same penalty reductions in Nobles County.

“I understand that there are those that have paid, but again, we chose to not do anything about it until now,” Widboom said.

Jacobs said reducing the penalty would be fair, yet still encouraged property owners to pay what they could by the May 15 deadline. She said delayed property tax payments will impact local school districts, cities and townships.

“Once (property taxes) are received, the county is statutorily required to get those tax dollars to those other entities,” Jacobs said, noting that payments are dispersed in June.

Johnson said he talked with a couple of taxing districts within the county, and heard that they may be OK with delay in some of their tax revenue until July, but going beyond that would create hardships.

Reopening plan

With Gov. Tim Walz’s executive stay-at-home orders set to expire on May 18, Johnson sought input from commissioners Tuesday on a reopening plan for county government buildings.

Metz said he spoke with three different department heads and said if the orders are lifted on May 18, it will still take some time for departments to develop a plan for reopening. He wasn’t looking to rush such an action.

“My concern is we don’t open too fast and make a mistake here,” added Commissioner Donald Linssen. “I think we need to go at this for the safety of our employees and do it slow. I would rather have a weak opening than open everything up … and have a reemergence of (COVID-19 cases) that is going to set things back.”

Johnson mentioned a few ideas being discussed for reopening, including a scheduling program that will allow people to schedule an appointment online with a certain department for the first several days, followed by a partial opening of the Ninth and 10th Street doors to the Government Center. The plan includes requiring visitors to wear a mask, as well as wash their hands thoroughly upon entry in the nearby restrooms.

There was some discussion about messaging and getting the information out to the public, though no formal motion was made to that effect.

Jacobs said her department will continue to encourage the public to renew license tabs and register vehicle titles via mail and the county’s drop box.

“We’re planning to have an entire list of services we provide (on our web page),” Jacobs said. “When you click a link, it will direct you to either make an appointment or complete through mail, email or the drop box. We’ll have appointments only for interactions that have to be done face-to-face, such as driver’s licenses with eye tests and photos.”

Related to the reopening of county offices, commissioners also followed in the steps of the Worthington City Council by adopting a resolution urging Gov. Walz to not extend the stay-at-home order beyond May 18, except for those with compromised immune systems or the elderly. The motion passed unanimously.

Sheriff Kent Wilkening said if the orders are extended and businesses choose to open on their own despite the orders, his deputies will be going in to advise the business of the governor’s order and that physical guidelines be adhered to.

“If it’s a bar or restaurant, we will advise them that their license may be in jeopardy,” Wilkening said. “We will do education and that is it. We will not be ticketing these establishments.”

Wilkening said law enforcement has been given leeway in regard to enforcing the stay-at-home order, and said the advice was to do education rather than impose fines.

“I also have the discretion to pursue legal charges,” Wilkening said. “In my opinion, I’m going to exercise the fact that I will educate these people on social distancing and will not ticket.”