WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board soon will deliberate what its chairman calls a common-sense plan to cut 10 percent from next year’s county government property tax levy.
The plan, unveiled recently by Chairman Jack Franks and county staff, would cut more than $8 million from the 2017 levy that will be paid by taxpayers next year. What’s more, Franks said it meets his goal solely by trimming fat and surplus – the cuts do not affect or curtail any services offered.
“There were no sacred cows. We looked at things a lot differently, and everything was open to scrutiny, which is the only way to run a government – there can’t be any sacred cows,” said Franks, D-Marengo.
Franks, who took office in December as the first board chairman directly elected by voters, ran on a campaign of cutting the county levy by 10 percent. County government accounts for about 10 percent of residential property tax bills.
The draft plan he showed in May to a working group he created to help craft a levy reduction plan is a mix of large cuts and small. The County Board earlier this year passed a resolution committing to a 10 percent levy cut.
The biggest change is abating the county’s $2.8 million levy for Valley Hi Nursing Home – County Board members had considered using the levy next year as a fund to pay for one-time capital projects, given that the county-owned nursing home west of Woodstock has amassed a surplus fund.
Franks proposes cutting county government’s six-month fund reserve to five months over several years, and using that $7 million to pay for needed building improvements.
The $8 million levy reduction will be abated back to the taxpayers, which means the county will keep its current tax rate; however, it will not collect on all of it. Because the county is below the tax cap, cutting the tax rate would cap it at that rate, meaning a voter referendum would be required to increase it beyond the rate of inflation. A number of county staff and board members had expressed concerns about having flexibility to restore funding in the event of future fiscal problems beyond their control, such as the continuing budget uncertainty in Springfield.
Valley Hi is not the only fund that is being pared down over surpluses. The proposal also cuts $75,000 from the McHenry County Veterans
Assistance Commission on the grounds that it has amassed enough of a fund surplus to finance an entire year of operations.
A cut in the levy for the county tuberculosis care and treatment fund also is $75,000, on the same grounds of amassing a significant surplus.
“It goes without saying that we want to use our VAC levy to help our veterans receive assistance and access to all the resources they need, but we don’t want to take any more than what’s needed from our taxpayers,” Franks said.
The cutting plan also is aided by the end of several debt payments.
Although the plan cuts a combined $695,527 from the highway and bridge fund levies collected by the county, plus another $100,000 in matching funds, the McHenry County Division of Transportation will in fact end up with more than $5.2 million in additional funding because the county made its final $6 million payment on a $50 million bond issuance taken out a decade ago to pay for road projects.
Another $1.18 million will be saved from the general fund by retiring some bond issuances and the restructuring of others – the county in the past has used its top AAA bond rating to get better terms on existing bonds.
The plan, with the blessing of the McHenry County Mental Health Board, will cut its levy by $500,000 because of money that was appropriated but never spent. It will more than recoup that in two years, Franks said, once it is able to call the bonds on its $4 million building expansion. The controversial expansion, the need for which was questioned by some County Board members and social service agencies, helped fuel financial woes for the Mental Health Board and led to an overhaul of its budget and its leadership.
Strengths in several funds also make some other cuts possible. Proposed levy cuts include $400,000 from the $4 million levy for Social Security and cutting the levy for tort immunity by $1 million, or 80 percent – the fund to cover the county’s liability in lawsuits has a $14 million reserve.
The numbers still are being refined as county staff work with other departments. Franks also wants to meet with rank-and-file county employees for suggestions – minus their supervisors – and solicit input from taxpayers before moving the levy cuts forward for a formal County Board vote.
Once the 10 percent cut is made official, Franks and some County Board members want the county’s actions to be an example to follow for other county taxing bodies.
One often-cited 2010 study puts McHenry County’s average property tax burden as 29th highest nationwide, in a state that has the highest or second-highest burden in the nation, depending on which study you read. About two-thirds of residential tax bills go to fund public schools.
“Once we’ve done this, we’ll be able to show the other taxing bodies how this can be accomplished because we need them to follow our lead to give the people of McHenry County real tax relief,” Franks said.
Although this proposal represents a levy cut, the County Board in the years since the Great Recession has voluntarily spurned the automatic inflationary increase in its tax extension that it is entitled to under the tax cap.