WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Conservation District budget had a much easier time before the County Board than the district's request that lawmakers get behind their push to collect more in property taxes.
County Board members after minor debate voted Tuesday, 19-3, to approve the conservation district's 2015 budget. The $25.3 million spending plan, which includes cuts, does not count on the General Assembly increasing its maximum tax rate, which is fortunate because the bill will not be called for a vote.
The district anticipates receiving about $315,000 less in revenue for the 2015 fiscal year that started April 1, and losing at least $2 million in revenue over the next five years because of falling property tax revenue. 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.
State Sens. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, drafted a bill that would raise the conservation district's maximum tax rate to 15 cents. The district asked the County Board to pass a resolution urging the bill's passage, but it got a frosty reception before the board's Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee from members hesitant to cheer on a bill enabling a tax increase.
Althoff subsequently amended it to require the district to ask for voter permission via referendum to raise the rate, even if it is below the annual percentage maximum set by the tax cap. It passed the Senate last month. But its chief sponsor in the House, local Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, told the Northwest Herald the day after Tuesday's budget vote that he had no intention of moving it forward out of concern for taxpayers.
The district maintains more than 25,000 acres and 33 sites open to the public, It more than doubled its land holdings over the past decade in the wake of two successful voter referendums in 2001 and 2007.
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.
The County Board's sole oversight over the conservation district is approving its budget and appointing its board members. The County Board can either approve or reject its budget, but cannot amend or modify it. Because of this, state law gives a county board three months into a conservation district's fiscal year to approve a budget as a cushion of time in the event of a disagreement.
The district's taxes under its current tax rate add up to about $44 for the owner of a $150,000 home who takes the homestead exemption.
How they voted
The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 19-3, to approve the McHenry County Conservation District's budget for 2015.
Voting no were Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, and John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake.
Board members Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, and Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, were absent.