WOODSTOCK – A 2015 budget described by the McHenry County Conservation District as austere and anticipating less tax revenue is on its way to the McHenry County Board after clearing committee.
The board's Finance and Audit Committee recommended approval of the budget on a 6-0 vote Tuesday morning. The $25.3 million budget includes cuts to programs, scaled-back capital improvement plans and shortened hours for its two visitor centers. The budget projects receiving about $315,000 less in revenue for the 2015 fiscal year that started April 1.
But while conservation district officials said they have austerity in mind for this fiscal year, they are pinning their hopes on being able to increase future tax revenues through two bills working their way through the General Assembly.
The budget is expected to go before the County Board for a vote at its May 6 meeting. State law requires that a county approve a conservation district's budget no later than the end of the first quarter of the district's fiscal year, which gives it a cushion in the event of a disagreement. The County Board can approve or reject the budget, but has no power under state law to amend or modify it.
The district, which maintains more than 25,000 acres and 33 sites open to the public, expects to lose $2 million in property tax revenue over the next five years because of dropping values. Because it is at its statutory limit of 10 cents per $100 in assessed value, it cannot raise its tax rate to compensate for it as other governments have done.
McHenry County's assessed value dropped 25 percent from 2008 to 2012 as home values fell with the bursting of the housing bubble, and the district anticipates another 8 percent decline on 2013 values from which this year's property tax bills will be calculated. Conversely, the county's assessed value increased 90 percent between 2000 and 2007, during which time the conservation district doubled its land holdings through two successful referendums.
"With the extraordinary growth the conservation district experienced as a result of the referendum approved bond issuances, combined with drastically reduced future tax revenues, the district will have a very difficult time maintaining all the critical infrastructure, assets and natural resources in public trust currently under its management," the budget states.
The budget includes the elimination of the popular Trail of History event at Glacial Park, and earlier closing hours for the park's Lost Valley Visitor Center. The Prairieview Education Center in Crystal Lake is now closed Sundays, and the Thomas Woods campground in Marengo is now open only on weekends rather than daily. The budget cuts the amount allocated for infrastructure improvements by about 60 percent, from slightly more than $1 million to $400,000.
While district employees will receive a 1 percent cost-of-living raise and are eligible for a 1 percent bonus, their health insurance premium costs will increase. The new budget also cuts employee education and training by 45 percent.
However, while the 2015 budget anticipates the next five to seven years to be a period of "preservation and maintenance," it states a goal over the next 15 years to increase its holdings by 14,000 acres, or more than 50 percent. That number also includes easements and partnerships.
Senate Bill 3342, co-sponsored by state Sens. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, will increase the conservation district's maximum tax rate from 10 to 15 cents if it becomes law. But the conservation district would be required to hold a referendum to raise the rate, even if it is below the inflationary maximum allowed under the tax cap.
The district's taxes cost about $44 for the owner of a $150,000 home who takes the homestead exemption under the current rate.
Senate Bill 3341, another bill sponsored by the two senators, would correct a 25-year-old legislative oversight that the district alleges created ambiguity as to the maximum it can borrow in bonds.
Both Senate bills passed the Senate on unanimous votes April 7. Local Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, is chief sponsor of both bills in the House.
The district asked the County Board last month to pass resolutions endorsing both bills. But the board's Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee tabled the resolutions after a majority of members expressed discomfort with supporting legislation that could enable a tax increase.
What it means
The McHenry County Conservation District's proposed 2015 budget is headed to the full County Board for ratification after a 6-0 vote Tuesday morning by the McHenry County Board Finance and Audit Committee.
Committee member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, was absent.
The County Board is expected to vote on the budget at its May 6 meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.
On the Net
You can read the conservation district's proposed 2015 budget at http://shawurl.com/14gs.
The texts and vote records for Senate Bills 3341 and 3342, which if passed will allow the district to capture more revenue, can be found at www.ilga.gov.