WOODSTOCK – A skittish McHenry County Board committee delayed approving a recommendation supporting two bills before state lawmakers aimed at allowing the McHenry County Conservation District to collect more revenue.
Members of the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee tabled two resolutions Friday in support of the two bills filed by local Sens. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles. If approved, Senate Bill 3342 would raise the district’s maximum tax rate from 10 cents to 15 cents per $100 in assessed value, and Senate Bill 3341 would correct a 25-year-old legislative oversight that the district alleges created ambiguity as to the maximum it can borrow in bonds.
The bills would not exempt the district from the tax cap – any increase in the tax rate above the rate of inflation would still have to be approved by voter referendum. But a majority of the committee’s seven members did not appear to have an appetite for supporting legislation that could enable a tax increase on beleaguered taxpayers in an election year.
“Looking for more funding in times of such fiscal difficulty doesn’t seem to be logical right now,” committee member Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin, told conservation district representatives.
Executive Director Elizabeth Kessler said the district has been very judicious with money in recent years. But tax revenues are falling with property values, and the district has much more land to maintain in the wake of two successful voter referendums in 2001 and 2007. The district, which now maintains 32 conservation areas with more than 25,000 acres of open space, is expected to lose $2 million over the next four years with the decline in home values if the current maximum rate stays the same.
One of the bigger financial issues, Kessler said after the meeting, has to do with properties with buildings of historical significance that people have said they want protected, such as the structures on Camp Algonquin, which the YMCA of McHenry County leased from the conservation district until its 2011 bankruptcy. A 2012 estimate commissioned by the conservation district put a $5 million price tag on bringing the buildings up to code and making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The big issue is that we’ve acquired properties with historical structures, and we’re willing to take on that additional care ... the public is asking us to save these great places, but we don’t have a mechanism to protect or restore them,” Kessler said.
Both bills cleared the Senate Revenue Committee on 8-2 votes March 21. While Althoff anticipates calling the rate increase bill for a full Senate vote this week, she said she will not call the bonding bill until committee members’ questions are answered and their concerns eased, specifically over the district’s ability to issue non-referendum bonds.
“I will not call the bonding bill until I know that my County Board knows exactly what that bill does,” Althoff said.
Questions over the bonding bill caused unease with several committee members and prompted the tabling of both resolutions. The bill would allow the conservation district, like other Illinois taxing bodies, to calculate its maximum limit for referendum and non-referendum bonds separately instead of combining them. Althoff said the ambiguity was caused by an omission when state lawmakers in 1989 increased the conservation district’s maximum rate.
Committee member Ken Koehler, who was a member and former chairman of the conservation district board before voters elected him to the County Board, said he was concerned that the district would begin seeking more bonds that do not need voter approval.
The conservation district has not issued such bonds in more than 20 years, Kessler said Friday afternoon.
“You’d be just stirring up a pot I don’t think you want to stir,” said Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.
The County Board appoints the members of the conservation district board, and has to approve its annual budget.
On the Net
You can read the text of Senate Bills 3341 and 3342 at www.ilga.gov.