Column

Franks: Does Lake in the Hills Sanitary District serve taxpayers or insiders?

McHenry County taxpayers have been getting shortchanged for a long time.

Springfield’s failure to pass a budget for two years left more than $15 billion in unpaid bills, and the stalemate was only resolved by foisting an unaffordable tax hike onto the backs of people who already bear one of the highest tax burdens in the country. 

Here in McHenry County, we pay higher property taxes than 99.99 percent of Americans, and while Springfield’s tax-and-spend ways certainly contribute to this problem, many local governments also are at fault. Illinois has the ignominious distinction of having the most local governments in the country – 2,000 more than Texas, the next closest state, which has five times more land and more than twice as many residents. 

In McHenry County, there are more than 100, and for years, many have taken the maximum annual tax increases allowed by law. People are rightly fed up and they’re leaving.

Since I was elected McHenry County Board chairman last November, our county has been working to give these folks a reason to stay: We’ve passed a 10 percent cut to next year’s property tax levy, found more than $8 million in spending reductions and placed a binding referendum on the 2018 Primary Election ballot that will give residents the opportunity to consolidate the offices of the county recorder of deeds and the county clerk. We’ve also begun exploring opportunities to consolidate unnecessary units of local government. 

Under a law that I wrote while I was a state representative, McHenry County can propose consolidation of existing taxing bodies that exist entirely within our county and to which the County Board appoints trustees. The Lake in the Hills Sanitary District is one such unit of government. In June, I asked the Lake in the Hills Village Board to join McHenry County in taking a look at whether eliminating the sanitary district would reduce residents’ tax burden. 

In my wildest dreams, I never would have guessed what we would learn as a result.

In late April, a rogue group led by the sanitary district’s director, whose salary and benefits cost taxpayers more than $150,000 a year, initiated the purchase of 13 acres of farmland in Kane County to try to circumvent the state law that I wrote by claiming to be a multi-county entity. The group claims that the land purchase is part of the district’s long-term strategic plan, but a request for every document from the last several years that mentioned a land purchase yielded only three emails. Those communications demonstrated that this group wanted to buy any piece of land available, for any price, so as long as it would fit into their scheme of blocking consolidation.  

In my experience, real long-term planning takes a lot more than three emails and the side in a debate trying to stop a discussion is always holding the weaker hand of cards, so it’s clear that local insiders are fighting to protect a fiefdom from which they’ve grown rich. Regardless of that, the meaning of the law is clear: Government boundaries are defined by the area served, not land owned. If the latter were true, local governments across the country quite literally could colonize each other for the cost of a parcel of land.

Last month, a McHenry County judge issued a temporary restraining order against the rogue group, halting the land purchase. A final ruling is expected on Aug. 15. 

The Declaration of Independence established “the right of the people to alter or to abolish” any government that fails to heed the wishes of its constituents as one of America’s founding principles.

In the face of greed and lies on the part of the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District, I am confident that our country’s founding ideals will be upheld and these shenanigans will be a bump in the road toward providing residents with lasting property tax relief.

• Jack D. Franks is the Chairman of the McHenry County Board.

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