CLAYTON — Some St. Louis County residents who have been charged hundreds of dollars in penalties for late property tax payments are blaming U.S. Postal Service delivery problems for causing their checks to arrive late.
Given widely publicized and continuing problems with mail service, they may have a case, local officials said Friday.
In response to those constituents, state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, said they are exploring the possibility of state remedies. Meanwhile, St. Louis County Council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, and Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, said they are asking county government whether late fees can be waived.
The elected officials say they have heard from residents who mailed their tax payments to the St. Louis County Collector of Revenue in late December, but were subsequently hit with substantial penalties because the mail was postmarked and arrived after the Jan. 1 deadline.
State law directs tax collectors to collect late fees on payments that are postmarked after deadline.
But amid widespread reports of a mail backlog during COVID-19 — caused in part by a surge in mail-in ballots during the November election, record levels of remote correspondence and commerce, and staff shortages at the U.S. Postal Service — lawmakers say there is reason to investigate whether some taxpayers are being fined for delays that were out of their control.
“We never want to unfairly penalize or tax someone when they have followed the rules to pay what is owed,” Schupp said.
Amy White, of Chesterfield, said her husband dropped their tax payment early Dec. 31 in a mail box with a stamp that noted the date, similar to how they’ve mailed payments over the last 25 years. But in March they received a county letter asking for more than $500 in late payment fees and interest, because the envelope wasn’t postmarked until Jan. 2.
“I can understand that fees are supposed to be a motivation for taxpayers to pay on time, but to split hairs over a couple days, especially when it could have been an issue with the post office, means you’re paying an excessive fee even though you’re paying on time,” she said.
“It’s a very significant penalty,” she said. “It’s not $20 bucks.”
In a statement, the St. Louis County Collector of Revenue’s office confirmed instances of mailed tax payments that were postmarked after Jan. 1 after fielding complaints from taxpayers who insisted that they mailed the payments ahead of the deadline.
But it was unclear Friday just how many of the late tax payments were affected by mail delays.
The county confirmed it recorded 4,829 more delinquent tax bills in the month of January than it did in January 2020, but neither the collector’s office or Postal Service were able to provide estimates of how many payments were postmarked after Jan. 1.
Representatives of revenue collectors for the city of St. Louis and St. Charles County said they had not recorded an unusual number of complaints of mail delays, noting that there are instances every year in which some people charged late fees argue that their mail was delayed or lost. Tax collectors throughout the region, including St. Louis County, offer varying ways to pay bills and warn taxpayers that they are responsible for mailing payments early enough to avoid potential delays.
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis District of the Postal Service did not respond to questions about mail service within St. Louis County in the last week of 2020, but provided a written statement that said the service experienced nationwide delays amid employee shortages and a record volume of mail and shipping orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement said: “We acknowledge the last few months have been a challenging time for the Postal Service and for our customers. We have processed and delivered mail for the American people under some of the most difficult circumstances we’ve faced in the past century.”
The statement included an apology for “any inconvenience” customers experienced.
Fitch, who represents parts of west St. Louis County, provided the Post-Dispatch emails of complaints from a business owner whose Dec. 31 mail was postmarked Jan. 2 and a Des Peres resident whose mail had no postmark at all. They were among half a dozen complaints his office received, he said.
“I would think with all of the delays we’ve seen — I’ve got people who still haven’t got the Christmas card I sent — that the right right thing would be to take the taxpayers’ word that they mailed it and waive the fees,” Fitch said.
Clancy, whose district includes a stretch of central St. Louis County from Clayton to Affton, said her office has also heard from a handful of residents with similar complaints, and that she’s exploring whether it’s possible to extend a grace period to account for Postal Service delays.
Mackey, a state representative whose district includes parts of Clayton and Ladue, said he’s heard from two constituents with complaints, but that he’s concerned there are others who don’t know where to look for help.
“I would imagine there are plenty of folks that are a week or two away from getting their notice or contacting us,” he said.
Schupp said she is exploring legislation that could offer taxpayers hit with late fees because of Postal Service delays a credit for 2021 tax bills equal to what they paid in late fees this year.