McHenry County Board members discuss salary reduction for elected officials

Board members clash on how best to compensate for upwards of $22 million in projected revenue loss

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At Thursday's Committee of the Whole meeting, McHenry County board members were given the chance to discuss two new resolutions proposed by Board Chairman Jack Franks. The first would cut the salaries of most county elected officials by 10% and the second would require board members to fill out a time sheet in order to receive county health and dental insurance.

"It's time to come together and actually put politics aside to help our constituents by sharing in their hardship," Franks said. "We must lead by example."

Board members engaged in a heated discussion on how best to make up for the county's revenue losses because of COVID-19 shutdowns, which, according to a recent report from Director of Finance Kevin Bueso, could be upwards of $22 million.

Franks began the discussion of the resolution requiring the use of time sheets by naming off all of the board members who utilize insurance benefits that are also up for reelection come November.

"The voters deserve to know where you stand on this issue before the election," he said.

These board members include Jim Kearns (District 6), John Reinert (District 2), Jeffrey Thorsen (District 2), Joseph Gottemoller (District 3), Michael Skala (District 5), Yvonne Barnes (District 1) and Suzanne Ness (District 2), according to Franks.

This was seen to be a political move by some members and incited a heated discussion of Franks' intention behind the proposal.

"I find it really disappointing that people who are running for office were just called out for political gain," said board member for District 2, Carolyn Schofield. "This is a discussion on policy, not a discussion on politics."

Given that the county's insurance plans are part of members' salary compensation, County Board member Chris Christensen (District 3) said he does not think that keeping track of hours served is relevant.

Asking board members to keep a time sheet to prove they are working the 20 hours a week required to receive insurance benefits is a simple way to show that they are earning the benefits, which are highly subsidized by taxpayers, Franks said.

The proposal was also made to "show solidarity" to constituents who may have lost their health insurance during the pandemic, he said.

Board member Paula Yensen (District 5) said she will support the initiative and added that many of her constituents have reached out to say they support it as well.

"During this very difficult time where many people are facing layoffs and furloughs and maybe foreclosures and bankruptcies, I thought it was an opportunity to lead by example and offer transparency," Yensen said.

The county's insurance plans, in some instances, cost taxpayers up to $23,000 per board member, Franks said earlier in the week.

Both resolutions would take effect in 2020 for the board chairman, but not until 2022 for board members when all seats will be up for election, Franks said.

Some board members said that it seemed irrelevant to vote on the resolution now, given that any kind of budgetary savings that might come from the initiative won't be felt for two years.

In response to this, Franks referenced Bueso's recent financial report which shows that the county will likely be feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. Earlier in the meeting, Bueso said the county's economic recovery time could range from six months to three years.

During further discussion, Kearns called Franks a "hypocrite" for taking the insurance benefits himself when he had the option to receive health insurance from his time in the state legislature.

In response, Franks said he chose to move onto the county's insurance plan because some county officials were concerned about accepting an insurance plan with such high premiums and he wanted to be in tune with the concerns of the rest of staff.

When the board began discussion of Franks' proposal to reduce the salaries of elected officials by 10%, some members said the board should be focusing on areas where the budget can be trimmed to make a difference now, rather than voting on a salary reduction that won't go into effect for some officials for two years.

"This proposal about the salary came forward because you have to do it six months before an election," Franks said in response. A state statute mandates that, if the board wishes to reduce salaries for elected officials, a vote must be held soon, he said.

Together, the two proposed resolutions will likely save the county "millions of dollars" over the next few years, Franks said.

Schofield said she felt that neither of the two resolutions proposed by Franks were given enough time for discussion in committee.

Thorsen later agreed stating that, at times, it seems that Franks introduces resolutions at the last minute as a way to push through his agenda without proper consideration.

The proposals were announced in a news release on Monday and the County Board will be asked to vote on them in their regular meeting on May 19.

Board member for District 4, Chuck Wheeler, also called Franks a hypocrite for having two administrative staff members on his team and suggested that cuts should start there as past chairmen "did not have assistants."

Redistricting following the 2020 Census will decrease the size of the County Board from 24 to 18 members, Wheeler said.

"We're going to have less board members doing more work for less money," he said. "By lowering the compensation, you're going to lower the number of people who will want to serve publicly."

McHenry County Board members are some of the highest paid countywide elected officials in the state, Franks said.

"This proposal will still have all of our countywide elected officials making more than their counterparts in larger counties and making much more on a per capita basis, with the sole exception of the office of the chairman which will be paid more than $20,000 less than the next closest chairperson," he said.

Yensen, Bates and District 5 board member Carlos Acosta all spoke out in support of the resolution.

"I run an organization of small businesses, 650 of them, and they're suffering, there's no question," said Bates, who is president of the McHenry County Chamber of Commerce.

District 1 Board Member Michael Vijuk suggested that he would support a more drastic pay cut, saying that some of his constituents have suggested that board members give up all of their pay for 2020.

Reinert said that members like Vijuk, who has a pension from his time as a professor at Harper College, can suggest drastic pay cuts and not be impacted by it while other elected officials may suffer from a 10% decrease.

"We are all not in this together," Reinert said. "There are many inequities around this."

District 3 board member Kelli Wegener echoed this statement later in the meeting saying that for some elected officials, "this is a full-time job, this is their livelihood."

Board member for District 6, Mary McCann, became emotional as she reprimanded the board for fighting over the salary reduction when they said nothing as county employees were furloughed at the start of the pandemic.

"I want to know where the hell all of the board members were when we laid off and furloughed all of those employees in April," McCann said. "I can hardly listen to this conversation, but nobody sticks up for the employees."

After four hours, Franks adjourned the meeting. The full County Board will vote on the two resolutions during their regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19.

Members of the public can submit commentary to be read at the meeting by emailing Residents can tune in to watch the meeting live through a link on the McHenry County meeting portal.