I'd love to lower taxes by attending 16 meetings a month, but ...


The way some McHenry County Board members appear to see it, our property taxes keep going up because we don't make the time to make our voices heard by the 10 gazillion governments on our bills.

I've heard this more than once from more than one County Board member in the months that I've dropped in on their budget task force, which wrapped up on Friday, the same week that we all got those tax bills.

Those board members do have a very good point – county government makes up about 10 percent of our bills, and the county is only the collector for what the schools (by far the largest chunk), municipalities and others decide to levy and spend.

But allow me to make a very good counterpoint, or rather the eight counterpoints to which I will be paying an arm and a leg in two easy installments of an arm in June and a leg in September.

Bear with me here – for once, just this once, darn it, I'm going to have a laugh instead of a cry on account of my bill.

On the planet where some county officials apparently keep at least a part-time residence, it's realistic for us to go to the meetings of every government on our tax bills to keep an eye on them and beg them, pretty please, to quit being so profligate with other people's money.

There are 290 property taxing bodies in McHenry County according to the assessor's office, but let's go through my bill and see just how realistic it is for me to keep tabs on the ones relevant to my checkbook:

• Let's start with the County Board, which meets on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, with the first meeting at 9 a.m. and the second at 7 p.m. Not so bad yet ...

• Now for the schools, Districts 47 and 155, which make up the biggest share of my tax bill. District 155's school board meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month, same time as County Board. So I guess my wife and I split forces – I go to one and she goes to the other.

District 47's board also meets the third week of the month, but not always on the same day – variety is the spice of life, I guess. If we end up with a three-meeting Tuesday, I have no idea what to do short of sending Fred and Ginger to the third, but  while my Siamese cats are smart, taxes go right over your head if your job is to sleep 16 hours a day.

• The village board of Lakewood, where I live, meets at 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. So if the Cravers want to keep an eye on government spending, I guess Tuesday night is Meeting Night.

• Grafton Township meets on the second Thursday of the month. Sure, it's only one meeting a month, but my goodness. I'd want hazard pay for sitting through one of those.

• The McHenry County Conservation District board meets the third Thursday of the month, as does the Crystal Lake Park District board. Again, I guess my wife and I have to split our forces, and  play rock-paper-scissors to see who has to drive to Woodstock to keep an eye on the conservation district.

• The McHenry County College Board of Trustees meets at 7 p.m. every fourth Thursday, so I guess that means that both Tuesday and Thursday are Meeting Night at the Craver household.

But wait! I haven't counted the meetings of the aforementioned governments' numerous committees and subcommittees in which many of the financial decisions are deliberated and made.

As a 15-year veteran of covering Illinois governments, I can say with plenty of experience that if you do in fact make the time to go to a government meeting the night of the budget vote to complain, you'll get a condescending look from the board president, who will ask you where you were at the last dozen committee meetings over which the budget was hashed out.

And because I'm a firm believer in overkill when dispelling government arrogance is concerned, allow me to throw another monkey wrench into this grand idea of more community involvement in government. Under state law, almost all of these taxing bodies operate on different fiscal calendars.

The county's fiscal year starts in December, and the fiscal year for the schools and the community college starts in July. The fiscal year starts in May for our municipalities and park districts, and in April for our townships. It also starts in April for the conservation district, but state law gives them the right to delay budget approval until the end of the first quarter.

In short, in some County Board members' eyes, the only way to lower your taxes and save your homes is to never spend time in them by going straight from work to all these government meetings. If it's any consolation, the era of smart phones will allow your spouse or babysitter to send you videos of all the milestone moments of your children's first words, first walk, school play, birthdays, etc., that you'll be missing.

To be fair to county officials, I bounced their idea off of an irate taxpayer or two who reached out to me for my tax story that ran today. I asked Joe Greenwood, of Lake in the Hills, what bodies he pays into (and he's mighty sore that that his tax bill went up $1,000).

While I pay into eight bodies, he pays into almost a dozen - the taxing body mishmash of Lake in the Hills also has him in two park districts, a library districts and a sanitary district. I asked the married father of two teenage boys whether he intended to start fighting his tax bill by going to the monthly meetings of all 11 districts on his bill.

"I would love to do that, but I have to work 10, 12 hours a day to pay these property taxes, so I can't do that, no," Greenwood told me.

This convoluted system means that we the people can't stay involved in government. And for the record, we the people didn't come up with this system in which anything from a cemetery with three headstones to a mosquito spray truck can become its own tax district.

They the government did that, with the express intent of draining us all dry. And quite frankly, any taxpayer who has the free time to sit through all the meetings on their tax bill don't shouldn't get a pat on the back - they should get a gift card to Hobby Lobby.

Again in the County Board's defense, they're feeling pressure because the county's name is on those tax bills. With all 24 seats up for election because of redistricting, board members are feeling the pressure from irate constituents over other governments' taxation, and it was showing at Friday's meeting. Board members took turns venting about the public (we wish they understood the tax process), the state (those idiots are making rules about running our ship while theirs is sinking), and of course, the media (boy it would be great if Mr. Craver and the Northwest Herald Editorial Board acted as our unpaid shills).

I don't care about County Board wisecracks, so long as they didn't hold an illegal closed meeting, playing musical chairs to avoid a quorum, to come up with them. And no thanks on the unpaid shill offer - the county's unpaid shilling for Rohm and Haas since the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits started showed me firsthand what that sort of thing does to one's reputation.

But to be clear, the idea that the key to lowering our tax bills is to go to these umpteen governments on our bills when we're not working or sleeping is the silliest thing I've ever heard.

For once, though, this silly idea made me laugh instead of cry over my property tax bill. And for that, County Board, I salute you.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.


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