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Legislators consider repealing law that allows McHenry County townships to be eliminated

Suzanne Ness, right, then a McHenry County Board member, speaks during a public health and community services committee meeting Sept. 26, 2019, at the McHenry County Administrative Building in Woodstock.

A law that allows McHenry County voters to eliminate their local townships could be repealed under legislation considered during a hearing Thursday.

The repeal was requested by McHenry County Board late last year, and McHenry Board Chairman Mike Buehler and Deputy County Administrator Scott Hartman spoke in favor of the repeal during Thursday’s committee hearing.

“Years ago, one of our townships was embroiled in controversy,” Buehler said. “But without crucial local support, this current law has a multitude of issues.”

No township in the county has been successfully dissolved since the law was passed two years ago, which county officials have argued shows the law is not necessary. They also questioned why it applies only to McHenry County and said it offers almost no guidance for how our county government would handle the assets, responsibilities, contracts and employees of an eliminated township.

The law also has recently been the subject of lawsuits filed by Nunda and McHenry township road districts, which argued the state constitution prohibits legislation from applying only to a single county.

Buehler said the former state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who sponsored the original law, represented “a very small corner” of McHenry County, and said did not have the support of the County Board when the law was originally passed.

State Rep. Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, who is the repeal’s sponsor, was on the County Board when the legislation was passed in 2019. She said she was one of the board members unhappy with the bill.

“It was well intended but flawed legislation,” Ness said, arguing that it would eliminate revenue sources and pit the county and targeted townships against one another.

The dissolution of any townships under the existing law would cause “financial havoc” and “cut needy residents from services that bear them through troubling times,” Buehler said.

Hartman said his office had analyzed the bill over a two-year period, consulting with both township and county officials, and concluded that the law inadvertently would cause “deleterious challenges.”

Those challenges include the possibility that outgoing township board members, suddenly in a lame duck position, could retaliate with moves like drastically reducing tax levies on residents. The county is required to reduce tax levies by 10% in the first year of taking over, meaning the affected area could suddenly face a major funding shortage to maintain and keep services, or pay off general obligation bonds, Hartman said.

“In essence, we’d inherit a mess,” Hartman said.

County officials are concerned the possibility of future referenda could be an issue in the upcoming election cycle, and that possibility has created a sense of urgency among local officials to move the repeal through the state legislature.

Hartman said petitions are “out there”, although the McHenry County Clerk’s Office said none have been filed as of Thursday morning.

Ness, Hartman and Buehler said they would support a future bill on dissolving townships that engendered clearer and more manageable action, and applied to all counties in the state.

At least one committee member, state Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, said she supported amending the existing bill instead of its repeal.

“Instead of jumping to repeal automatically,” Willis said, “let’s hear your ideas on how to make it better and put that language in place.”