WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board in a surprise twist chose not to lower the levy for Valley Hi Nursing Home as part of its 2016 budget as planned, but to abate it completely for one year.
Board members voted late Tuesday evening, 22-0, to approve the change and the budget.
Their original plan simply had been to reduce the levy for the county-owned nursing home from $3 million to $2.25 million as part of its $231.5-million 2016 spending plan.
The change came after a chaotic and at times contentious debate on a major change proposed the night of a budget vote for a county fiscal year that starts in two weeks.
But in the end, members who said the county could set an example for other taxing bodies that are choosing to raise as much as possible on taxpayers’ backs won the day.
Finance and Audit Committee Chairman Mike Skala, R-Huntley, made the amendment, which took more than 30 minutes of explanation, a recess and a debate with County Clerk Mary McClellan as to whether state law allowed the abatement to continue a second year without wiping out the tax rate forever.
Board members ultimately passed an amendment by member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, to limit the abatement to one year and revisit it again for the 2017 budget.
Members have struggled in past years with the large surplus that the nursing home has amassed – that surplus, which varies between $35 million and $40 million, could cover about three years worth of its expenses.
The surplus in many ways is Valley Hi being a victim of its own success.
The 128-bed, all-inclusive nursing home west of Woodstock bled millions of dollars in red ink for years until a series of reforms were enacted.
The home has run in the black since 2011, and the surplus that used to plug the leaks since has created the large surplus, despite the fact that the levy steadily has been reduced from $6 million a decade ago.
County Board members historically have been divided between those who want the Valley Hi levy reduced as much as possible and its reserve spent down and those who think deep reductions would be irresponsible given the state budget crisis and funding uncertainties with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The home’s administrators have said a $16 million reserve would be sufficient.
Valley Hi makes its revenue, not counting the levy, from Medicaid, Medicare and some private-pay beds.
Although the abatement passed unanimously, some board members warned of putting taxpayers on a “roller coaster” in which the Valley Hi levy, which was created by voter referendum, is abated one year and resurrected the next.
Even without the abatement, the county budget approved Tuesday was the smallest in almost a decade, and about $10 million smaller than the 2015 budget.
A “yes” vote Tuesday evening by board fiscal hawk John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, brought out laughter and applause from his peers – it was the first time he ever voted in favor of approving the county budget and levy.
Several board members had harsh words for bringing a major change the night of the budget vote and the confusion it caused over whose interpretation of state statute is correct.
“This is no way to run a railroad,” said board member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake.