With opposition to any form of a tax increase mounting, the committee in charge of forming Kane County’s 2022 budget plan turned to a last-minute amendment Wednesday that would use emergency COVID-19 relief money to address a $10 million deficit.
The potential change of plan comes with the entire county board up for election in 2022. However, local homeless shelters, food pantries and mental health service providers have spent months pleading with the county to spend less COVID-19 money on government and more on addressing local economic and social crises.
That sets up a final budget vote next week that may be unpopular no matter what county officials decide.
The federal government awarded Kane County $103 million in American Rescue Plan money to address local the impacts of the pandemic. The county has spent almost none of the money beyond the direct needs of the county health department.
Part of that stems from county board members seeing the one-time federal money as an opportunity to address the compounding budget deficits forecast for the county’s near future. The county’s expenses are driven primarily by what it costs to pay the 1,200 county employees. And even employee raises at, or slightly above, cost of living increases are proving to be more than the county can afford.
County board Chair Corinne Pierog told finance committee members the salary levels for many employees are tough to live on.
“We have people making $12 per hour,” Pierog said. “With taxes and paying 17% to insurance, that’s maybe $8 in take-home pay per hour. If you continue to cut, you’ll cut off an arm. Then what happens?”
A study conducted about five years ago indicated the county was operating about as lean as it could. Still, just last week, Sheriff Ron Hain noted the budget problem and volunteered to trim $1 million from the budget for the county jail.
That helped, but not enough.
The county board is mulling over several ways to create new income heading into a final vote on Nov. 30. One of the two most prominent ideas is a 2-cent-per-gallon county gas tax increase that would net $1.8 million in new money. The other idea is to increase the county property tax levy by 1.4%. That would generate $800,000 in new money and raise the average local property tax bill by $5.
Neither of those ideas is proving popular with the backdrop of the upcoming election and all the federal COVID-19 money the county has.
“How do we tell taxpayers we need them to come up with a little extra money?” Asked county board member John Martin. “It’s a difficult sell when we have the capacity and the entitlement to use those (COVID-19) funds.”
A new budget plan ditches all tax increases in favor of using up to $16.1 million of COVID-19 money to fill the 2022 budget gap.
About $6.9 million would go into the fund the county uses to pay salaries. Another $3.24 million would fund transportation projects already underway. The remaining $5.9 million would trickle down through the county’s remaining budget lines in an undetermined fashion.
That would give county board members a year to figure out a long-term solution and get them past the election without voting on any tax increases.
But that will also leave the board with less pandemic money to put into the community. Representatives from Hesed House in Aurora and PADS of Elgin again peppered several board members Wednesday with pleas for help.
Hesed House’s Joe Jackson said his shelter has 300 guests and is at capacity even as demand for homeless shelter space is increasing. He needs more space.
“This is going to take quite a bit of funding,” Jackson said. “I ask that you keep that in mind. I cannot allow Hesed House to ever come to a time where we have to decide what man, women or children are able to get a warm, safe place to sleep at night and which ones would be turned away.”