Democratic McHenry County Board Chairman-elect Jack Franks on Thursday was making his way down a call list of the 24 board members he will be working with starting next month.
Twenty-three of them will be Republicans, with a new Democratic minority of one. But Franks, who with his Dec. 5 swearing-in will be the first person elected to the office by voters, said he anticipates accomplishing a lot in partnership with board members.
“I’m really optimistic. I think we have some really smart people who want to do a good job and have good ideas. As long as people put aside partisanship and don’t play politics, we’re going to get a lot of good things done,” Franks said.
Franks ran on a platform of cutting the county’s property tax levy by 10 percent, improving efficiencies and transparency, and using the office to encourage other local governments that make up much larger shares of residents’ tax bills to do both as well.
The nine-term state representative from Marengo chose to run for the chairmanship after the March primary rather than seek a 10th term representing the 63rd House District that covers northern and western McHenry County. Voters in 2014 passed a referendum by almost a 60 percent margin to make the office directly elected, ending the longtime practice of the County Board choosing the chairman after each November election.
On Tuesday, voters gave Franks the chairmanship by an almost identical margin over Republican candidate Michael Walkup, according to unofficial results. Walkup, who lost the chairman race but won re-election to his County Board seat, will stay on the board, as will outgoing Chairman Joe Gottemoller, whom Walkup narrowly bested in the March primary.
Franks in his new role will have the dual tasks of setting the precedents for the newly created elected seat, while at the same time trying to work collaboratively with a board that he had frequently sparred with over the years. His fight this year with the County Board over whether members qualify under the law for Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund pensions – which concluded with a new state law ending the practice and the board voluntarily withdrawing from IMRF before that – is only one example.
Franks spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to pass a voter referendum creating an elected county executive out of frustration with the board’s opposition at the time to transition to a popularly elected chairman, and he has frequently alleged that the board has repeatedly worked to stymie his efforts in Springfield to lower property taxes and promote government consolidation.
The elected chairmanship does not have the wide-ranging powers of an executive branch. He can call meetings and ultimately sets the agenda for them, but has no vote in a county of McHenry County’s size, although a bill aimed at giving the chairman the ability to vote to break a tie could pass the General Assembly during the fall veto session starting Tuesday.
But Franks said that power, plus what he calls the “bully pulpit” of the elected office backed by what he considers a voter mandate for change, will be enough.
At the top on his list of priorities over the next four years is to trim down the county budget to meet his promise of trimming its property tax levy by 10 percent. He wants to adopt zero-based budgeting, meaning each year’s budget starts from scratch and does not use the previous year’s budget as a baseline, and also plans to do a top-to-bottom review of every county department.
“There aren’t going to be any sacred cows here. Everything is going to be on the table. The people of McHenry County can’t afford higher property taxes,” Franks said.
As for the bully pulpit, he would like to work with municipal governments to encourage cost savings through consolidation of services and sharing of equipment. When it comes to school districts – which account for the majority of property tax bills – he would like to do the same, from pushing for district consolidation to holding forums to educate school board members to make good economic choices. But first and foremost, the County Board must lead by example, Franks said.
Franks also wants to reform the County Board by overhauling a committee structure that he believes has become far too cumbersome and does not adequately pair members with skill sets where they could be best used. Ultimately, he would like to see six standing committees instead of the current 11, and allow for substitution when members are absent to prevent business from not getting done because of a lack of a quorum.
Another priority for Franks will be preparing to act on the voters’ wish to reduce the size of the County Board – they approved an advisory referendum Tuesday by more than a three-to-one margin. The County Board after the 2020 U.S. Census will have a window to reduce its size and alter the size and makeup of its districts for the 2022 election. The advisory referendum was pushed by Gottemoller, who argues that the job of county government can be done with fewer people.
“The people have spoken that they wish to have fewer members. I campaigned on cutting it in half, and I want to put that forward,” Franks said.
Franks said that by the end of his term, he wants McHenry County to be a national model of good, and lean, government.
“We are going to do the will of the people. We are going to cut government. It’s going to happen,” Franks said.
Just less than one-third of the new board seated in December will be new members.