Will McHenry County Board hold the line on its tax levy? Members appear split heading into Tuesday vote

Tax levy and 2024 budget are both up for consideration

People walk towards the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. The McHenry County Board is schedule to vote on the county budget this evening.

The proposed McHenry County budget – which the county board is set to vote on Tuesday night – features less overall spending than last year, but also a higher property tax levy.

Last year’s budget was $263.8 million, while this year’s proposed spending plan is $247 million.

Some of that decrease resulted from the RTA Sales Tax budget, which was $42.38 million last year and $19.6 million this year, according to county documents. Kerri Wisz, the county’s chief financial officer, said much of the higher budget last year was due to obligating funds for the Randall Road project.

However, the budget proposal calls for an increase in the fund that makes up the largest chunk of county spending — the general fund. Under the proposed budget, the county’s general fund would increase from about $92.6 million to nearly $98.8 million.

In their supporting documentation for the county spending plan, officials attributed the proposed 6.64% general fund bump to “the increased operating transfers out” for one-time capital projects as well as “increased contractual services.”

Not unlike many people feeling the pinch of inflation, the county also has been faced with higher prices. Jail food services, juvenile detention and placement in the courts, as well as the county’s employer share of health insurance premiums and software increases contributed to the higher prices, officials said.

”The county is always looking for new ways to be efficient to help combat some of these increases,” according to a transmittal letter officials posted along with the proposed budget.

Still, the county is proposing an increase in its tax levy that’s smaller than the 5% that would be allowed under the so-called tax cap, which is tied to the Consumer Price Index, a gauge of inflation. Instead, the county proposes to seek a smaller tax-cap increase of 1.95%, while expecting to capture additional revenue due to the county’s new growth.

About $73.8 million of the county’s proposed $247 million in total revenue would come from property taxes, which represent about 30% of all revenue, according to the proposal.

“With several years of reduced or stagnant levy revenue (outside of new growth), increased unfunded mandates and continued high inflation, all revenues and expenses were considered in developing this budget,” Wisz and other county officials wrote in a letter on the county’s interactive budget website.

The letter cited “ongoing challenges” and the county’s long-term financial health in explaining the proposed levy increase.

Wisz told the Northwest Herald that a lot of variables are in play regarding the impact on property taxes. But she said the average annual increase for the county portion of the levy would be $19 for a $300,000 home.

The county board is also expected to vote on the proposed levy Tuesday night, which is $73.8 million this year. It was nearly $71.6 million last year.

Many of the county’s levy funds are also expected to see adjustments from last year’s amounts:

  • The Veterans Assistance levy is proposed to increase from $550,000 to $660,000.
  • The senior services would increase from $1.645 million to $2 million
  • The Mental Health Board fund is proposed to increase from $10.45 million to $10.975 million – less of an increase than the board and many services agencies who receive funding through the county wanted.
  • The highway and bridge funds are proposed to stay flat at $9 million and $500,000, respectively.

Whether to keep the levy flat has been a point of contention in recent weeks. Some members are OK raising the levy, while others do not want an increase at all.

“I have never in my district been asked about property taxes,” board member Lou Ness (D-Woodstock) said during an October county board meeting.

Board member Eric Hendricks (R-Lake in the Hills) called for keeping the levy “true flat” this year.

“I don’t think tacking on a couple million extra more through the levy is appropriate at this point,” Hendricks said last month, citing the gas tax increase the County Board passed in September. Hendricks opposed the gas tax change, and during that debate, called the options of raising the levy or increasing the gas tax a “false choice.”

The gas tax increase brings the rate up to eight cents per gallon, effective Jan. 1, while the county’s fiscal year runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30.

Board member Matt Kunkle (R-Algonquin) said last month the county was at a “tipping point” financially and called for a “flat, flat levy.”

“We must give (taxpayers) a break from the inflation that arguably our government created,” Kunkle said.

Board member Terri Greeno (R- Crystal Lake) told the Northwest Herald after the gas tax vote that she did not want to raise the levy, which is why she voted for the gas tax increase.

The recently-enacted SAFE-T Act is also factoring into the county budget.

According to county documents, costs associated with the SAFE-T Act are $1.9 million. The state law SAFE-T Act controversially abolished cash bail in Illinois, and the county projects it will lose $300,000 of revenue from cash bail. Other costs the county says stem from the SAFE-T Act include six positions in the State’s Attorney office at a cost of just over $650,000 and about $21,600 of circuit clerk overtime, among other expenses.

However, the budget as presented might not be the final version approved Tuesday, as there could be changes and amendments to the spending plan before it’s approved. Michael Skala (R- Huntley), the county board’s finance chair, called that “part of a normal course of action.”