The Republican candidate for McHenry County Board chairman, Mike Buehler, said that, after never having been involved in politics, he decided to run for chairman because he could no longer stand by and watch what he described as financial "inefficiencies" and "corruption" in local government.
“I feel like I’m just to the point where I can’t afford not to get involved,” Buehler said. “You can sit at home on the couch and complain at the TV all you want or be a keyboard warrior, but at some point I think you need to try to make a difference yourself and approach things in different ways.”
If someone asked him even a few years ago whether he would consider running for elected office, Buehler said he would have laughed.
After the election of current Board Chairman Jack Franks in 2016, Buehler said he began following McHenry County government more closely and, upon hearing that Franks would be running unopposed for reelection, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.
Alongside his twin brother, Buehler has owned D&M Scale Services in Bensenville, which provides industrial weighing services for trucking companies, for the past 25 years.
When asked about prior political experience, Buehler said that he served for a stint as his son’s youth soccer coach, but sees his lack of political involvement as a positive thing.
“I think that any local government could benefit from a businessman’s perspective on how to possibly do things a little bit differently than they currently do,” he said.
District 2 County Board Member Jeffrey Thorsen said he thinks Buehler will bring a new, more approachable leadership style to the County Board.
“I think he’s got a hard side that he’s definitely going to stick to his guns, but I also think that he’s a very reasonable man,” Thorsen said. “He’s very intelligent and very fair and he’s not a politician which is huge for me.”
Franks’ method of governing has contributed to the causation of a new atmosphere of “complacency” and “anxiety” among many County Board members, making them less likely to speak up in meetings, Thorsen said.
“When you bring in those kinds of perspectives or those kinds of approaches to the political process from Springfield and you unleash it on, you know, a group of people that may or may not be as well-versed, it is kind of a new world,” he said. “... [Buehler] is the kind of guy that invites participation.”
According to his campaign website, Buehler said that, if elected, he plans to empower board members to speak up on behalf of their constituents by restoring an “open dialogue.”
“I think there’s a level of frustration with quite a few of our board members that they’re not able to have their voices heard or have items of interest being brought to the agenda because the chairman controls the agenda,” Buehler said.
The County Board has accomplished more in the past three years under Franks than it had in a number of years prior, Franks said in response.
“I set goals and they never had them before,” he said. “So I challenged the board and the vast majority rose to meet that challenge and, as a result, we have had incredible success.”
Under Franks, the County Board reduced the county’s property tax levy for three years in a row, voted to reduce the size of the board and rebated $15 million in surplus funds from Valley Hi Nursing Home back to taxpayers, he said.
If there were problems with the ways that board members relate to his leadership style, then they would not have been able to collaborate to accomplish these things as well as many other initiatives, Franks said.
“I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to represent the citizens and to be their champion, their advocate, and we have gotten so much done as a result,” he said. “Democracy isn’t always pretty and I like a robust debate.”
What Franks called “robust debate,” Buehler considers to be “cutthroat politics,” he said. Buehler maintained that he does not think that enough has been done to increase the budgetary efficiency of the county.
“Reducing the tax levy without reducing the spending of the county as much or more than what the reduction of the tax levy was. ... I don’t know how successful that really is when you’re spending more than you’re taking in and spending down the reserves of the county,” he said. “Is that good fiscal policy?”
If elected, Buehler said one of his main priorities would be to work to make McHenry County a “more affordable place to live” and a better place to do business.
Buehler lived in DuPage County before moving to Lake in the Hills and then Crystal Lake, where he lives with his wife, Heidi, and their three sons.
“We’ve been here for about 15 years but, over the course of that time, property taxes have risen steadily and sometimes shockingly to the point where it’s almost not affordable to live here anymore either,” Buehler said.
Buehler wants to look for new and innovative ways to save taxpayers money, such as eliminating pensions for more county officials.
“I don’t see why a government employee should be treated any different than someone in the private sector, like why don’t they go with a 401k-type plan,” he said.
Trimming the county's budget is more important now than ever, given recent projections of immense revenue shortfalls because of economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Buehler said.
A May 5 report from the county’s Director of Finance Kevin Bueso projected revenue losses from $6.9 million to $22.1 million because of COVID-19 shutdowns.
These projections were based in the knowledge that 66% of county revenue comes from 20 sources, which are sensitive to disruptions in economic activity such as a pandemic, according to Bueso’s report.
Given the fact that the county's fiscal 2020 budget shows the use of $18 million in reserve funds to balance the budget, Buehler said he does not feel confident in county government's ability to manage its finances in light of the additional revenue losses.
“If you want to put $20 to 22 million on top of that, where are we going to come up with the money and when is that conversation going to be had?” Buehler said.
Franks expressed the urgency of cutting costs in a Committee of the Whole meeting on May 14, proposing two resolutions to cut the salaries of many elected officials by 10% and to require the use of timesheets for County Board members who wish to use county health and dental insurance. These measures would save the county "millions of dollars" over the next few years, Franks said.
The proposals were removed from the County Board's agenda by board members who said the resolutions were not given proper time for discussion in committee.
Buehler agreed with a few board members who have said that these resolutions would barely scratch the surface of rectifying the county’s budget, but said that nothing, including salary reductions, should be “off the table” when it comes to cutting costs.
“I would encourage all of the administrators for all of the departments to take a hard look at their budgets and make suggestions where they think it would have the least impact on services, but yet still be able to cut costs,” he said.
Finally, Buehler said that, if elected, he would prioritize the development of a plan around protecting residents and staff of local long-term care facilities from the potential effects of a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections in the fall.
“The Board of Health, they have to reach out to facilities and make sure that they have a plan in place for protecting their residents,” he said.
Of the 82 county residents who have died from the virus thus far, 63 (77%) were associated with long-term care facilities, according to the McHenry County Department of Public Health.
The MCDH has issued COVID-19 safety guidelines for long-term care facilities, but Buehler said that more should be done to protect at-risk residents.
The new head of the McHenry County GOP, Tyler Wilke, said that the showdown between Buehler and Franks will be one of the most impactful races for county residents in the November election.
“[Buehler] is an outsider to politics, a family man, business owner,” Wilke said. “He brings a lot of common sense and I think that having Republican leadership on the board will, in turn, benefit the county.”
Wilke said he also views Buehler’s background in business as an advantage and thinks he will bring a fresh perspective to the County Board.
Buehler said that he plans to schedule more campaign events once he is able to do so safely and looks forward to the day when he can once again speak with county residents in person.