The latest annual U.S. Census Bureau population estimates once again sound a familiar refrain – McHenry County and Illinois are losing people.
While it should not be a surprise to anyone who follows current events and state politics that Illinois is hemorrhaging residents to other states – the exodus last year hit 100,000 for the first time – it is telling that a county that in previous decades was one of the fastest-growing in the nation is now suffering the same.
McHenry County had a net loss of 184 people between July 2015 and July 2016, according to the new data, making for an overall loss of 1,756 since the decennial 2010 Census to 307,004. Since 2010, McHenry County has lost population in every annual estimate but one.
Such a small decrease on its face might not seem like a lot, but it should sound alarm bells in a county that grew by 18.7 percent in the previous decade and almost 42 percent in the decade before that. Barring a sudden upswing, the 2020 Census will be
the first in which McHenry County lost population since the original 1840 census taken four years after the county’s founding.
While much of the downtrend can be blamed on the end of the county’s white-hot housing boom with the bursting of the housing bubble a decade ago, experts and observers say other factors now are just as responsible for driving people out.
Real estate agent and lifelong county resident Shawn Strach has heard them all in his 14-year career selling homes – but by far, the most common responses he hears is the tax burden and the scarcity of jobs.
“I think, ultimately, the concern in the marketplace today is why people are leaving. It’s a plethora of reasons,” he said.
Multiple studies and analyses confirm Strach’s observation and put a more disturbing face on the latest census estimate.
Several studies put Illinois’ property tax burden at the highest or second-highest of all 50 states, with critics alleging that many residents pay more on their property taxes than they do their mortgages. A 2010 analysis by the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation puts McHenry County’s at 29th highest of all counties nationwide.
Even though property values plummeted in the wake of the Great Recession, property taxes stayed the same or increased – a fact that a number of former McHenry County residents cited as the last straw for them in a 2015 series the Northwest Herald wrote on the local property tax burden.
They’re hardly alone. A 2014 Gallup poll and a 2016 poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale concluded that more than half of Illinois residents want to move elsewhere. One out of four Illinois residents in a separate Gallup poll called Illinois the worst state in which to live.
As for jobs, on top of the fact Illinois’ job growth since the Great Recession has paled in comparison with neighboring states, that growth isn’t happening here – studies commissioned for McHenry County show that about two-thirds of working residents commute to other counties for their jobs.
Those neighboring states also are getting most of the people leaving Illinois, according to a 2015 study by the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, which disputes the argument that people are leaving to live in warmer climates.
Yet another study – a 2016 economic development study commissioned for McHenry, Boone and Winnebago counties – casts an even darker light by showing just who the people are who are leaving.
The study revealed that the three counties between 2010 and 2014 lost almost 8 percent of 25- to 44-year-old residents, or about 12 times more than what the rest of the Chicago region lost. That demographic is considered critical to planners because it’s the one that starts families and businesses.
To former Illinois state representative and current McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, D-Marengo, taxation and population drop are a “dysfunctional cycle” that has to be broken. County government several weeks ago approved a plan to cut its tax levy by at least 10 percent, and Franks said other local bodies, especially school districts that make up the largest share of property tax bills, must follow suit.
While he touted job-creating projects, such as the full Interstate 90-Route 23 interchange that Marengo city leaders envision as a manufacturing hub equidistant to O’Hare and Rockford airports, he said tax reform has to be local governments’ top priority if the declining population trend is to be reversed.
“Until we can make McHenry County a more attractive place for employers to locate, young people are going to follow the jobs,” Franks said.
But on top of problems at the local level, Springfield presents its own contributions to the ongoing outmigration of people and their tax revenue and intellectual capital.
The state has the worst unfunded pension liability in the U.S., and the worst credit rating, which is just above junk status and continues to drop. Illinois has gone almost two years without a budget in place as a Republican governor wanting reforms stays at loggerheads with the Democratic-dominated General Assembly that believes a budget and reforms are two separate issues.
There are some strong things that continue to work in McHenry County’s favor and keep people here, Strach said. But he questioned how much longer it will be until even those strengths get outweighed by liabilities.
“The things keeping our residents here is that we have a pretty decent school base and green space,” Strach said. “Is that enough to keep people around when we have high taxes? I think that’s where we are today.”