Franks supports referendum regarding possible county board salary cut

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks voiced his support Friday for asking voters whether County Board members should have their salaries cut.

The announcement gives more steam to an effort by board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, to put an advisory referendum on the ballot asking whether County Board members and countywide elected officials, including Franks, should have their salaries reduced by 10%.

“To say that our constituents are hurting is an understatement for the history books,” said Franks, D-Marengo. “More than 13% of McHenry County’s working-age citizens are unemployed, many of whom have been trying since March to get benefits. Many of those who are fortunate enough to still have jobs have had their pay cut."

The resolution to add an advisory referendum on the salary reduction issue will come before the Finance and Audit Committee at its Aug. 6 meeting. It would then be considered by the full board at a special meeting to be convened before the planned Aug. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The deadline to place referendums on the November ballot is Aug. 17.

Advisory referendums can be a helpful tool but are a waste of time and money when public sentiment regarding the issue in question already is largely understood by County Board members, said board member Michael Skala, R-Huntley.

“I’m sure that they would vote yes ... because there is a perception that elected officials are overpaid for under-work in the sense that they don't work a full 40-hour week," Skala said.

Adding this referendum to the November ballot could cost the county money if it resulted in the ballot continuing on to another page, Skala said. The cost of printing one more page with each mailed ballot can add up quickly, especially in an election where more residents are likely to vote by mail than ever before, he said.

In a news release issued Friday, Yensen said that she has wanted to guage public opinion on a salary reduction ever since a proposal to cut the pay of elected officials by 10% was met with opposition earlier this year.

Franks presented a salary reduction resolution to the board in May, but members voted to remove it from the agenda the night of the vote.

With a shrinking economy and growing unemployment prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Yensen said the county's elected officials "should lead by example."

“More than 51 million Americans have filed for first-time unemployment since the pandemic began, and the surging number of cases nationwide is washing away what little progress was being made toward recovery," Yensen said in the release. "Yesterday, the government reported that the U.S. economy shrunk last quarter by 32.9% – the largest drop on record."

In the release, Franks said that small businesses are struggling to stay afloat while county government is expected to "lose millions of dollars in revenue."

"Under no circumstances can we even think about asking our suffering taxpayers to make up the difference. We need to find every penny of cost savings we can," he said.

Board members Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, and Michael Vijuk, D-Cary, support the advisory referendum, according to the release. Wegener said board members should not be averse to placing a non-binding, yes-or-no referendum on the ballot to see where those who elect them stand on the issue.

"Our county and nation are in crisis, and I don’t use that word lightly,” Wegener said. “We need to look for cost savings everywhere we can, and as County Board members, we should lead by example. So many of our neighbors have lost their jobs or had their paychecks reduced, and I think we would benefit in seeing how they feel.”

When asked whether he agrees with the sentiment that McHenry County elected officials are overpaid, Skala said it depends on the amount of work the official puts in, which he said can vary greatly.

“I feel like the 10% pay cut is not warranted if someone is putting in the time and effort into doing their job function," he said. "I feel that our elected officials are paid a fair salary, again, making the assumption that they're putting in the time."

If that is not the case, "the public should be made aware that this individual is not putting in the time that they should be to do their job, and hopefully that individual would not get reelected again," Skala said.

The board has used referendums to guide its action in the past. A 2016 advisory referendum that asked voters whether to reduce the size of the board passed with more than 80% in favor, according to the release. The board subsequently voted to cut its size to 18 members after the 2022 election.

Shrinking the size of the board as a cost-saving measure, rather than reducing the salaries of elected officials, is something that Skala said he always has supported.

“We could very easily be much lower than the 18 [members] that we’re anticipating going to,” he said. “We could very easily be 14, 16 – heck, I think we could even be down to 12 – and still provide the attention to detail ... and provide what the public expects of us to do just as well as 24 members.”

Skala said the problem with the board's recent vote to reduce its size is that future board members tasked with redrawing district lines do not have to abide by that decision.

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