Government

Kane County Board rejects tax increases, solves deficit with COVID cash

Kane County residents won’t pay more at the pump or on their county property taxes in 2022.

County board members approved a 2022 budget Tuesday that fills a $10 million budget hole with $16 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The total is more than the county has detailed about addressing the budget deficit, and officials have not yet said how they plan to spend the remaining $6 million.

The decision, which came on Giving Tuesday, doesn’t address economic and social crises detailed by local homeless shelters, food pantries and mental health service providers pleading with the board to put more of the relief money back into the community.

Local homeless shelter and food pantry directors have spent much of the past several months telling the board they are operating at capacity. Likewise, mental health service providers have repeatedly asked for funding to help hire and retain staff, saying they’ve seen unprecedented demand for counseling and more dire circumstances than they’ve ever seen.

There is a movement toward putting $4 million of the federal relief funds toward those issues before the end of the year. But the county has not yet issued any checks or started taking applications for the funds.

With the vast majority of the board rejecting any form of a tax increase Tuesday, board members who supported the use of COVID-19 relief funds to balance the budget said they were both justified in using the funds and had no other choice.

“It’s important to say these were allowable uses of the funds,” said county board member Drew Frasz. “We didn’t just grab this money and say, ‘We’re going to balance the budget.’ These are expenses that we incurred and that we’re reimbursing ourselves for.”

Fellow board member Ken Shepro, who is also chairman of the Kane County GOP, took that a step further.

“Not only is it an allowable use, I think it’s a use that the Congress felt we should take advantage of,” he said.

The county hasn’t raised its property tax levy to account for inflation since 2011. The only significant new income source in the past decade has come from a cannabis tax the county began collecting this year.

Reserves have been gradually spent down to address rising costs, primarily in employee wages and benefits. Now there are no more savings.

And the 2022 budget includes 2% raises for county employees that will increase the gap between the county’s income and expenses once all the COVID-19 money is gone.

County board Chair Corinne Pierog told the board the 2022 budget plan is a stopgap, not a long-term fix.

“Whether you feel this is a good use of the (COVID-19) money is a personal decision,” Pierog said. “It is a valid use. There is still a hole that will have to be filled going forward. When that (COVID-19) money is spent, the hole will persist.”

Several board members tried to start filling those holes with two tax increase amendments to the budget. That was a tough sell as the entire county board is up for reelection in 2022.

Board member Michelle Gumz was the lone “yes” vote on a 2-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. The rest of the board said they had been bombarded by constituents telling them to vote against the gas tax.

“They are tired of paying extra money at the pump,” said county board member Mike Kenyon. “Vote for the people.”

A second amendment tried to increase the county’s property tax levy by 1.4% to bring in about $800,000 of new revenue next year. That plan received only seven “yes” votes from the 24-member county board.

Gumz voted “yes” for that tax increase as well. She was joined by Deb Allan, Mavis Bates, Dale Berman, Chris Kious, Cherryl Strathmann and Vern Tepe.

Board member Myrna Molina said a property tax increase hits those who can least afford new expenses the hardest.

“We still have residents who are being buried because of the pandemic,” Molina said. “We have people who have lost their jobs. We don’t have the money right now to make ends meet, especially in my district. The spirit of the American Rescue Plan was to rescue municipalities who need revenue recoupment because of the pandemic. To tell people that we received $200 million and then slap them in the face and say, ‘You can afford more,’ I think it’s disrespectful.”