WOODSTOCK – A lack of hard information on the effects of merging townships, except for the fact that property taxes for many McHenry County residents would increase, doomed an effort to put referendums to voters to consolidate them.
The County Board voted Tuesday, 13-9, against putting referendums on the March 2016 ballot to consolidate the county’s 17 townships into eight.
The vote came after an hour of public comment, mostly from township officials opposed to the idea, and two hours of sometimes heated debate among members.
In an unusual move, board Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, started off the debate by apologizing for even starting it in the first place at the behest of a pro-consolidation group.
“Had I known what I know today, I wouldn’t have done it,” Gottemoller said.
Gottemoller said the fact that taxes would go up for property owners in the township with the lower of the two tax levies was a deal-killer for him, and he said it should be for other members.
Because the levies of two consolidating townships are added together and then divided among their total assessed value, the residents of the township with the lower tax rate would see a tax increase.
“We are standing here today looking at something that positively will raise taxes for half of our residents,” Gottemoller said.
But supporters of the consolidation initiative argued that the resolutions before them Tuesday only moved the question for the voters themselves to decide.
“I realize that change is a very scary thing for all of us. That’s not what we’re doing today. That’s not what we’re saying. All we’re saying is we want this on the ballot,” said board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.
A group called McHenry County Citizens for Township Consolidation, with the blessing of several high-ranking county Republican officials, asked the County Board in March to put the consolidation initiatives on the ballot. The group argued consolidation would save taxpayer money and improve accountability.
Gottemoller convened a five-member task force made up of three County Board members and two township officials to come up with a plan.
But after three hearings and an open house, the task force only could agree on recommending two proposed consolidations – Richmond and Burton townships in the county’s northeast corner, and Chemung and Dunham townships in the county’s northwest corner.
The remaining six consolidations on a map the task force could not reach consensus on advancing still made it to Tuesday’s agenda. The County Board rejected all eight on a single vote.
Board member Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, who chaired the task force, said township consolidation proponents “offered no data and no valid solutions.” The only thing the referendums offer, she said, is “a shift of who the taxes come from.”
Board member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, scathingly criticized the entire initiative as ham-handed, and called any idea that consolidation would save any money “a damned lie.”
“I keep hearing this referred to as a plan. A plan. Really? Where is the plan?” Hammerand said.
County Board members who supported the referendums said voters are intelligent enough to make their own choices and should be given the chance.
“If I am going to err, I am going to err on the side of the people,” said member Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry, said.
Townships under Illinois law have three statutory functions: assess properties, maintain roads and provide assistance to constituents in need.
Although supporters of township government in Illinois call it the most direct and responsive form taxpayers have, critics call it an unnecessary anachronism rife with nepotism and patronage.
Although supporters maintained during the task force’s hearings that their consolidation plan would result in a $4 million annual savings, Schofield acknowledged at a Sept. 1 presentation of its findings that the total savings, if any, are completely dependent on the new officials of each consolidated township.
A number of township officials, who packed the task force’s hearings, warned County Board members Tuesday of unintended consequences over what for most taxpayers say is the cheapest level of government on their property tax bills.
The proposed and rejected merger of Richmond and Burton townships would add $100 onto the bill of the owner of a $200,000 home, Burton Township Supervisor Sam Jones told board members.
As for Richmond Township, Supervisor Pat Doyle said it would cost $150,000 just to expand township offices to make room for taking on Burton Township’s assessments.
But several speakers supported putting consolidation on the ballot as a way to help relieve McHenry County’s high tax burden.
Mike Shorten, a Nunda Township trustee who headed the pro-consolidation group, cited an opinion poll showing 80 percent support for putting the referendums to voters. Opponents called the poll questions biased.
“The public has spoken. There are too many government entities, property taxes are too high, and something – something must be done about it,” Shorten said.
More than one opponent suggested the County Board could do a lot more to lower property tax bills than the townships could.
“[Township government is] way closer to the people than you are,” former Dunham Township trustee Robert Dodson told them.
Besides the proposed Richmond/Burton and Chemung/Dunham consolidations, proposed mergers rejected Tuesday included McHenry and Greenwood, Nunda and Dorr, Coral and Seneca, Marengo and Riley, and Algonquin and Grafton townships, as well as a three-township merger of Alden, Hebron and Hartland townships.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has since been changed to delete a statement that Richmond Township's building does not have indoor plumbing. It is Burton Township's hall that does not have indoor plumbing.
How they voted
The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 9-13, against putting township consolidation referendums on the March 2016 ballot.
Voting yes were Michael Rein, R-Woodstock; Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake; Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry; Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary; Andrew Gasser, R-Fox River Grove; James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake; Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake; Bob Martens Sr., R-Spring Grove; and Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry.
Voting no were Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake; Mike Skala, R-Huntley; Larry Smith, R-Harvard; Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock; Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake; Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard; John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake; John Jung, R-Woodstock; Don Kopsell, R-Crystal Lake; Mary McCann, R-Woodstock; Anna May Miller, R-Cary; Robert Nowak, R-Lake in the Hills; and Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake.
Board member Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, was absent.