WOODSTOCK – An advisory referendum asking whether property taxes should be frozen will not appear on the April 4 ballot.
The McHenry County Board, citing its rules that ordinances first should go through committee, voted Tuesday evening, 17-7, to remove the ballot proposal from the agenda, denying it a direct vote. The move was a Republican rebuke to new board Chairman Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who announced at last week’s Committee of the Whole that he wanted the question on the ballot in which voters will elect their representatives to the local governments that levy property taxes.
Several Republicans, who hold all but one seat on the 24-member board, called the measure a piece of feel-good nonsense and pointed to their own record of going five years and counting holding county government’s levy flat. Franks countered that the message is a necessary one with a local election coming up and momentum building in Springfield for imposing a statewide property tax freeze.
Franks, the first popularly elected chairman who took office last month, called the move partisan politics at the expense of beleaguered taxpayers. What’s more, Republicans who represent McHenry County in Springfield, and several conservative groups that wanted the referendum on the ballot, also are not happy.
“What they did yesterday was an affront to the taxpayers of McHenry County. Every taxpayer was brutalized last night by the County Board. Brutalized,” Franks said Wednesday morning.
Tuesday was the last day for local governments to put referendum questions on the ballot. Franks said the deadline qualified the referendum to be put on the ballot without going through committee.
The question would have asked voters whether local taxing bodies should require voter permission to raise taxes by any amount. Under the tax cap law, local governments can collect increases from their previous year’s extension provided the percentage does not exceed the rate of inflation. Similar advisory referendums have passed in Lakewood, Cary and Fox River Grove.
Both Franks and County Board members got into a heated debate when the motion was made by Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, to remove it from the agenda.
“Vote no. You can vote no and I can respect that … but to deny the vote on a procedural matter so you can kill it – understand the only reason you’re doing it is for political reasons,” Franks said.
Previous Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, took offense at Franks’ remarks that partisan politics and a lack of will was the motivation for the removal. Gottemoller said the county has held the line on taxes for years, and it was the only county to pass a resolution backing the “Turnaround Agenda” of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“You’re implying to people that they somehow are going to accomplish something when they vote to have ice cream for breakfast in second grade, because that’s exactly what this is,” Gottemoller said.
Wilcox said his motivation was adherence to County Board rules and a desire for meaningful reform – although board rules allow the committee process to be circumvented for “urgent” issues, he said an advisory referendum does not rise to that standard. Wilcox said he is eager to work for tax abatements, meaningful reform and on Franks’ initiative to reduce the county levy by 10 percent.
“A nonbinding advisory referendum was not of an urgent nature,” Wilcox said Wednesday.
However, two local state lawmakers who are fighting for a permanent property tax freeze – a freeze passed the Illinois House last week but did not have time for a Senate vote before the new session – said the County Board on Tuesday harmed the cause.
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the vote. He said keeping the referendum off the ballot “could not have come at a worse time,” not only because of local elections, but also because of a budget compromise being pushed in the Senate that would permanently raise the state income tax.
“What happened last night was a setback for property tax relief,” McSweeney said.
Rep. Allen Skillicorn, who unsuccessfully attempted to get the question on the ballot with petitions that had far too few signatures, attended the four-hour meeting and called its conduct “embarrassing.” He said having the referendum on the April ballot would have sent a loud message to local taxing bodies that the line has to be held on property taxes.
“It really was partisan politics, and it didn’t benefit the people,” said Skillicorn, R-East Dundee.
One study puts McHenry County’s property tax burden as 29th highest by county in the nation, in a state with the highest or second-highest tax burden overall. Representatives from the conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and the Illinois Policy Institute, which attended the meeting, reminded board members of those facts during public comment after the vote.
Tuesday’s vote hardly was the first time the County Board grappled with putting an advisory referendum with no legal weight to the voters.
The referendum in the Nov. 8 election to gauge support for cutting the size of the County Board almost didn’t make it to the ballot because a committee wanted to investigate the potential effect on redistricting and committee structure after the 2022 election. The committee eventually moved it forward.
An advisory anti-corruption referendum on the same ballot, which has appeared in other counties with no controversy, got approved by the County Board after an hour of debate and six proposed amendments.
How they voted
The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 17-7, to remove an advisory tax freeze referendum from the meeting agenda, thus keeping it off of the April 4 ballot.
Voting to allow the referendum to get a debate and vote were Kay Bates, R-McHenry; Robert Nowak, R-Lake in the Hills; Mike Skala, R-Huntley; Larry Smith, R-Harvard; Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry; Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills; and Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock.