Local Government

McHenry County Board again keeps the tax levy flat in 2015 budget

WOODSTOCK – Next year’s proposed county budget is again balanced and for a third straight year does not collect the inflationary property tax increase it is allowed under the tax cap.

The McHenry County Board received the tentative $234.3 million county budget for 2015 at its Tuesday evening meeting. It is on 30-day review until the board votes Nov. 18 to accept it before the Dec. 1 start of county government’s fiscal year.

Next year’s budget is a maintenance budget that again does not include new programs or capital projects. Its only growth comes from natural growth of employee benefits and some minor supplemental awards. The 2015 budget is about $13.2 million less than the current 2014 budget of $247.5 million.

“Once again, this budget process has been a challenge for administration and all elected and appointed department heads as we continue to maintain the quality of service our constituents have come to expect, while confronting revenues that have been slow to recover following the downturn of the preceding years,” the letter accompanying the budget states.

The roster of county government employees in 2015 will mark a fifth straight year of decline, as county government since the Great Recession has adopted a policy of automatically eliminating vacant positions after several months unless departments can make a sufficient case for keeping them. However, next year’s budget does include a merit pay increase of up to 2.25 percent for nonunion employees. County Board members in recent years have strived to maintain some sort of wage parity with unionized employees so as not to encourage more departments to unionize.

One unknown that may require a tweak later in the 2015 budget year is the fate of the contract with the federal government to house inmates at the county jail. The decade-old contract expires next October, and declining revenues may mean the County Board decides not to renew it. The program grossed $542,131 last year compared to $2.5 million in 2012 and $4.6 million the year before that. The county receives a fee per inmate per bed per day for detainees brought in by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Next year’s budget also further reduces the levy of Valley Hi Nursing Home, from $4.5 million this year to $3 million in 2015, because of the large fund surplus the county-run home west of Woodstock has accumulated. While the County Board turned around Valley Hi from an institution bleeding red ink to one now turning a small profit, the levy that has in the past made good on the losses has now accumulated a surplus of about $35 million, or enough to fund more than three years of operations.

The 2015 budget does not include collecting an inflationary increase under the tax cap.

The tax cap law in place on the collar counties since 1991 to rein in skyrocketing tax bills has had an unforeseen effect with property values declining in the wake of the bursting of the housing bubble. When home values are rising, the law limits the increase taxing bodies can receive over the previous year to either 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. But when values fall, a scenario state lawmakers never envisioned, the tax cap ensures governments receive the inflationary rate if they so choose.

County government accounts for about 10 percent of a homeowner’s property tax bill.

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