Agencies want to ask county voters for tax to help disabled

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board will decide later this month whether to put a tax increase referendum on the April ballot to help residents with developmental disabilities.

Social service agencies for years have wanted to put the referendum to voters. Accompanied by people with developmental disabilities and their families, they formally asked the Public Health and Human Services Committee at its Friday meeting to do so.

If approved, the referendum would create a new tax levy and a “377 Board” to disburse it to agencies working with the developmentally disabled. The setup would be similar to that of the McHenry County ­Mental Health Board, which collects a levy to parcel out to agencies that address mental health issues.

The proposed tax rate of 10 cents per $100 in assessed valuation would mean an increase of about $60 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home who takes the homestead exemption.

Options and Advocacy for McHenry County Executive Director Cindy Sullivan told the committee that agencies understand the tough times that households are under, but stressed that the need is great, especially with a state government that does not pay its bills to agencies on time or in full.

“We know that McHenry County cares,” Sullivan said. “We are very familiar with the economic strains that families are under. We very much respect that,” Sullivan said.

The committee will make a recommendation at its Nov. 16 meeting, and the referendum will go before the full County Board on Nov. 20.

Governments have until Jan. 22 to put referendums on the April 9 ballot. But a new County Board will be seated in December after Tuesday’s election, and new committee assignments likely will not be finalized until early January. At least one-third of the board will be newcomers, and at least three of the public health committee’s seven members are leaving office.

Sullivan said the tax would generate about $10 million a year, which could be used to provide greater access to group homes, day programming and jobs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. While 650 people currently have access to such services, Sullivan said, many more people need access.

Mental Health Board Executive Director Sandy Lewis told the committee that it has reached its tax limit under state law, meaning it cannot bring in new revenue for developmental disabilities short of a return to regular growth in property values. The board has turned down more than $1.7 million in requests for funding from its client agencies, she said.

Options and Advocacy alone is owed $250,000 by the state for its work with the disabled, and has not seen a state payment since July, Sullivan said. She called the proposed referendum the best solution to the “sad, sad situation” in Springfield.

“I would much rather have McHenry County in charge of this than the state of Illinois,” Sullivan said.

Pioneer Center for Human Services, which also supports the referendum, is owed $3 million in back payments by the state, said Sue Krause, director of organizational advancement.

Mary Donner, R-Crystal Lake, a committee member and the County Board’s liaison to the Mental Health Board, told audience members that she supports the creation of the new board. Kathleen Bergan Schmidt, D-Crystal Lake, expressed discomfort, despite obvious need, to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters for more money.

County Board members have cited overwhelming voter concern about the tax burden in the current economy, and anger that property tax bills are increasing despite the fact home values have plummeted.

Bergan Schmidt also reminded committee members that many of the County Board candidates in Tuesday’s election answered the Northwest Herald’s election questionnaire that they will work again next year to freeze the county tax levy for 2014, just as the board plans to do for taxes payable next year.

To keep that promise, she said, board members would have to cut elsewhere in the county levy to keep it flat should voters approve the tax increase. Bergan Schmidt told the newspaper in her questionnaire that it is far too early for her to commit to freezing 2014’s tax levy.

“Where are you going to take the money away? Where are you going to cut?” Bergan Schmidt said.

Voters in April will elect to nonpartisan boards and all township offices. Turnout over the past four April elections has averaged 16.3 percent and decreased steadily. It reached an all-time low of 12.5 percent in 2011.

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