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McCaleb: Shooting for the top – er, bottom – 10?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013 11:38 p.m. CDT

Here’s a fact that local taxpayers might find interesting, and disturbing: Of the more than 3,000 counties in all 50 U.S. states, McHenry County has the 24th highest median effective property-tax rate, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

I know, I know. “Highest median effective property-tax rate” is a mouthful, and what does it mean, anyway? Knowing I was going to need help with the explanation, I asked for some.

“The property-tax bill for your typical McHenry County home is 2.37 percent of the value of the home,” Diana Sroka, director of media relations for the Illinois Policy Institute, emailed me in reply to my question. (Sroka is a former Northwest Herald reporter.) “That means a property-tax bill of $7,110 for a $300,000 home.”

By comparison, the U.S. median effective property-tax rate is 1.14 percent, or $3,420 on that same $300,000 home, less than half what we pay here in McHenry County.

At 1.93 percent, Illinois is second highest in the country. Only New Jersey is higher.

And McHenry County’s rate of 2.37 percent is significantly higher than Illinois’ median rate.

Hooray for us.

I quote these statistics essentially to get to the point that most of us already know: We pay too much in property taxes – in McHenry County and across Illinois.

So why then do local taxing districts think it’s OK to pile more onto taxpayers?

Under Illinois law, taxing bodies each year are able to increase the total amount that property owners pay them by either the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is less.

But they don’t have to raise our taxes. They also can decide to keep the tax levy flat or reduce how much they receive.

Unfortunately, many taxing bodies seek the maximum possible amount the state allows, even though home values have decreased significantly since 2008.

McHenry County College has begun a discussion on what to do with its property-tax levy. Trustees last week were split on which way to go.

“How can you explain to people their property taxes are going up when their home values are going down?” Trustee Molly Walsh asked during a board meeting. “We are fiscally able to have a flat levy this year without jeopardizing our ability to run this college.”

Exactly.

In addition to significantly reduced property values, unemployment remains high. The jobless rate in McHenry County jumped to 9 percent in June from 8.8 percent in June 2012.

After approving the maximum allowable levy increase last year, the MCC board should not raise taxes again this year. Nor should any other taxing body in this county.

We’re already 24th worst in the nation. Should we shoot for the top – more like bottom – 10?

• • •

The city of Crystal Lake made a reasonable concession Friday by agreeing to allow the completion of bleacher renovations at Crystal Lake South High School so the stadium can be ready for prep football season.

School District 155 ignored city zoning requirements and thumbed its nose at nearby residents by erecting the bleachers, which tower over a number of homes in the Amberwood Drive neighborhood.

The bleachers were built too close to the neighbors’ property line by city ordinance, and also stand taller than city code allows at 47 feet, 10 inches. The city says the new construction could cause flooding issues and a decrease in property values.

With football season less than two weeks away, the city agreed to allow the school to finish, but said it would continue its court battle.

Of course, the timing of everything on the part of the school district is suspect. It never went to the city for required zoning variances, and waited until the end of summer vacation to erect the bleachers, handcuffing the city and nearby residents.

What was the city going to do? Force the South football team to move all of its home games away from home?

While I’m not a fan of using taxpayer money to settle disputes between two government bodies, the school district is in the wrong on this issue. If left unchecked, who’s to say what it will try to do next.

• Dan McCaleb is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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