Candidates for McHenry County Board’s District 9 disagree on property tax increases

All three candidates, residing in Huntley, have served on County Board at some point

Election 2024
Three candidates are running for two seats in District 9 of the McHenry County Board. From left to right, they are Michael Skala, Jessica Phillips and Jim Kearns.

With a possible property tax increase looming for the McHenry County Board, one candidate running in District 9 said he supports a boost to keep up with inflation, while his two opponents think cuts can be made to make up the difference.

All three candidates in District 9 – Republicans Jim Kearns and Michael Skala, and Democrat Jessica Phillips – have served on the board in the past, with Kearns and Skala sitting currently, and Phillips trying to get back on after resigning because of an out-of-district move.

While Skala, who chairs the board’s finance and audit committee, said he thinks and has recommended the board raise its tax levy this year to help keep up with inflation, Kearns and Phillips said they would prefer to make cuts or pull money from other areas to close any gap.

The three candidates are running for two open seats in District 9 of the county, which includes a large portion of the southern part of McHenry County and includes all or parts of Marengo, Union, Huntley and Lake in the Hills, along with large swaths of unincorporated area. All three candidates reside in Huntley.

November’s race will see all 18 seats on the County Board up for grabs following the county’s decennial redistricting process and the decision to reduce the board’s size to 18 from 24.

Following redistricting, District 9 makes up all or parts of Marengo, Huntley, Lake in the Hills and unincorporated McHenry County.

Skala has been on the board for about a decade and before that was a school board member for Huntley School District 158 for about 15 years. Kearns has been on the board since 2016 and before that served as the Grafton Township supervisor. Phillips, the first openly gay woman to sit on the board, resigned after moving out of her district in 2021. She said she is running to increase representation for the LGBTQ community.

Phillips, the lone Democrat running, said raising property taxes was a “last resort, and really should be for any county or any state.” Given recent inflation, which is at a 40-year high, she doesn’t think taxes should be raised.

“People are struggling right now,” she said. “We can’t afford to pay any more right now.”

This was a sentiment Kearns agreed with. He pointed to rising gas and food prices, and said he was not in favor of raising taxes to keep up with inflation. Generally, he would only support it if “extreme cuts” needed to be considered.

Kearns also noted other taxing bodies, such as fire protection districts, cities and school districts, saying he expects them to take as much of a property tax raise as they can.

“Someone has to maintain sanity,” he said. “This year of all years is the one we should maintain a flat levy.”

Skala said he would support raising the tax levy this year, adding that doing so would not just make the county solvent this year, but would help in future budgets, as well.

Not doing so will lead to cuts in future years, “whether you want to or not,” Skala said. That said, Skala advocates taking only part of what is available from inflation.

“I don’t want to raise taxes if I don’t have to,” Skala said. “I pay taxes myself. I don’t like it. Twice a year, I get sick to my stomach whenever I write a check to the county clerk.”

For Kearns and Phillips, they suggest looking at other ideas to close the gap. Kearns suggested using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, from which the county received almost $60 million. Phillips said to look at other departments to “take a little from here and a little from there.”

“You have to go through everything else before you touch property taxes,” she said.

The candidates also did not find total agreement on requirements from the state put on the county that aren’t paid for, commonly called unfunded mandates. While Kearns and Skala both said they dislike unfunded mandates, Phillips said she looks at them on a case-by-case basis.

Kearns said the rate of unfunded mandates being handed down, such as in the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T, Act, which the county estimates could cost it around $1.2 million in extra staffing and programs, make it impossible to balance the budget without burdening residents.

“I’m trying to get through this year without raising taxes,” he said. “But at some point, the state is going to force this county to make either some extreme cuts in service or increase some levy.”

Skala called the mandates “aggravating,” saying even items he might support, such as body cameras for law enforcement, which the county approved earlier this year, are things the board should work on themselves rather than the state forcing them on them.

“I have a real hard time with that,” he said. “To me, government should be locally controlled. It shouldn’t be controlled by the state or by the federal government.”

While Phillips said she likes some more than others, she said she doesn’t think property taxes should go to pay for the mandates. She thinks the state should have a plan in place to help support local government. If that doesn’t happen, she said it’s up to the county to analyze its own house to find ways to pay for them before raising taxes.

“It’s about looking at the county and … auditing and looking at every department,” she said.