Lauded 11.2 percent property tax cut drops to 9.5 percent

The financial tango of shaping McHenry County's budget ended with a bang last year: An 11.2 percent cut to the property tax levy.

But an examination of the numbers behind the reduction – after assessments settled and actuals surfaced in April – revealed the percentage slashed from the property tax levy was less than what was celebrated in County Board chambers last November:

9.55 percent – just below 10 percent cut from the year before.

The Northwest Herald reached out to McHenry County administrators Peter Austin and Ralph Sarbaugh to learn about a volatile process where it’s a guarantee that budgeted numbers change.

“We have to put our best guess on those numbers, and sometimes we’re closer than others, but we’re never right,” Austin said. “The number is never what we say it will be.”

The County Board budgeted the property tax levy to be cut by 11.2 percent – but that was before new property was added to the tax rolls.

“At the time we’re doing it, we don’t know how many new exemptions, how many new properties,” Sarbaugh said.

Another factor that plays a part in the budget-shaping process – beginning almost a year before the County Clerk strikes an actual levy – is an inconsistent flow of data: Assessment data from the county’s 17 townships always arrive at different times.

“We work with the assessor to come up with what we believe the new growth is going to be on the county, but usually by the time we’re getting that number, not all of the townships have filed with the assessor.”

New growth means a home that was once a vacant lot. A vacant lot that is now a car dealer. A three-bedroom home that is now a five-bedroom home.

The shift from 11.2 percent to 9.55 percent in the property tax reduction has illuminated a problem with shaping a budget with a specific tax cut in the crosshairs.

“In hindsight,” Austin said, “maybe we have to be a little more careful.”