Hennepin and Ramsey county boards voted Tuesday to help property taxpayers and small business owners with mounting hardships due to COVID-19.

Each board unanimously approved stripping penalties on tax payments made up to two months past the May 15 deadline for qualifying property owners. That means they can delay payments until July 15 without fines or interest.

Also Tuesday, the Hennepin County Board approved a $2 million relief fund for small business loans. Beginning next week, qualifying businesses can apply for zero-interest loans of up to $7,500, to be repaid over 36 months.

Both Hennepin and Ramsey counties moved to help residents and businesses even as they're burning through cash to cope with the pandemic. The counties, the most populous in the state, are seeing huge costs and don't yet know how much the federal government will reimburse them.

In Hennepin County, only those with cumulative annual property tax bills of $100,000 or less are eligible to pay late without penalty; in Ramsey County, that threshold is $50,000. Those who escrow their taxes aren't eligible in either county.

"This is really just the beginning," Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison said. "We are way far from the end."

Hennepin County has transferred $10 million from its general fund, which is funded with tax dollars, into its depleted emergency fund for pandemic response. The county has already used more than $8 million, leaving only $1.8 million in the emergency fund.

The board voted to direct $4 million for ongoing costs related to housing the county's homeless in isolation. The money also will go toward an additional 200 hotel rooms to house high-risk residents from some of the county's largest shelters, and to set up a new 50-room hotel shelter for families with members who test positive.

County Administrator David Hough said Hennepin is providing "protective, safe housing" for more than 1,000 individuals who can't afford it.

County officials encouraged those who are able to make payments on time to do so, to ensure the ongoing financial health of cities, school districts and the counties, which act as the fiscal agent for the other tax districts.

Both counties are seeing huge costs related to the pandemic. They have added homeless shelter capacity, beefed up public health and financial assistance divisions and purchased protective gear for staff and first responders.

Looking for relief

In Ramsey County, small landlords with residential non-homesteads of no more than three units with taxes of $20,000 or less also may seek to defer tax payments without penalty.

"We are really trying to provide a real deferral and relief for those most impacted," said Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt.

Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor said the county's emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic has already cost about $7.5 million, and there's "almost $20 million in potential expenses yet to be charged." He has asked county departments to figure out ways to reduce their annual budgets.

Ramsey County commissioners said they were actively lobbying legislators for additional help for renters who cannot pay due to job losses. "We really need all the partners at the table, and the state is a huge partner in this," Reinhardt said.

Hennepin County's loan fund aims to help smaller businesses including restaurants, said Patricia Fitzgerald, the county's economic and community development manager. The county has 27,000 businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

To qualify for the loans, a business must have a physical presence and employ at least one person but no more than 20, and it must have existed at least six months before March. Nonprofits aren't eligible. The Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers will oversee the program.

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