Nunda Township’s highway commissioner filed a lawsuit on Monday against the local government’s Board of Trustees, following through on a threat he made earlier this month to challenge the body’s decision to alter his proposed property tax levies for the coming year.
At the heart of the dispute is whether the township board has authority to alter the tax levies Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance brought forward for board approval under state law.
By changing Lesperance’s proposals for property taxes before they were approved by the board and sent to the McHenry County Clerk’s Office, the board was trying to share more of the township road district’s revenues with the cities and villages within the township than Lesperance wanted, the board members have said.
“The highway commissioner determines the levy. That’s not a gray area,” Lesperance’s Crystal Lake-based attorney, James P. Kelly, said in an interview.
The lawsuit was not unexpected. Trustee Tim Parrish last week, after being informed that Lesperance intended to sue over the matter in McHenry County Court, called it a “sad day for our township.”
The spat between Lesperance and the board has highlighted concerns of municipal officials like McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, who has criticized Lesperance for an obscure property tax practice that, since 2015, has left local governments with nearly $900,000 less in road maintenance funding than they would have seen under previous taxing arrangements.
Yet, some current and former village officials are not opposed to Lesperance’s leadership.
In Nunda Township elections earlier this year, former Island Lake Public Works Director Brian Bartnick threw his support behind Lesperance, who won the Republican primary by 125 votes over challenger Eric Dowd, who made the declining municipal funding from the township a central issue of the race, according to the Lesperance campaign.
“I’ve been dealing with Mike for almost seven years with the Village of Island Lake. He has been a tremendous help many times. I hope Island Lake residents vote for him,” Bartnick is quoted by a campaign social media page as saying in February.
Bartnick is no longer the village’s public works director. He was given a severance package to leave the position earlier this year, according to Island Lake Trustee Charles Cermak, who said he also supports Lesperance and believes he has done good for the village. Bartnick’s departure was not over any Nunda Township-related issue or his support for Lesperance, Cermak said.
Neither Lesperance nor Scott Puma, an attorney for the township board, returned requests for comment Tuesday.
Lesperance filed the lawsuit because, each year, township road districts levy property taxes for different funds. State law requires that a certain portion of one of the funds be shared with the city or village in which the taxpayer lives, while townships are given sole control over the other fund.
Since Lesperance took office in 2013, he has lowered tax collections for a fund that cities and villages are supposed to get a cut of and at the same time, raised the levies for the district’s permanent road fund, which goes toward only the township.
The highway commissioner’s proposed levy for next year would have allocated almost $583,000 to the road and bridge fund shared with municipalities, and more than $2.3 million to the permanent road fund controlled solely by the Nunda Township Road District.
But Trustee Rob Parrish ultimately agreed to pass a levy of almost $3.2 million total as Lesperance wanted, but insisted on trimming the township-dedicated fund to $1.89 million, down from more than $2.3 million. Parrish also proposed beefing up the fund shared with cities and villages to just more than $1 million.
Parrish’s balance of the separate levies, which would raise funds shared with cities and villages and reduce the fund for only the township, passed 3-2. Support came from Parrish and his brother, Trustee Tim Parrish, who also has a seat on the board, and Trustee Johanna Donahue. Trustee Karen Tynis and Supervisor Leda Drain voted no. Both said they wanted to avoid provoking Lesperance into filing a lawsuit against the board over the matter.
Last year, McHenry Township Highway Commissioner Jim Condon filed a lawsuit citing similar legal arguments after the McHenry Township Board of Trustees voted to lower his proposed levy by about a $1 million. But a McHenry County judge dismissed Condon’s request for an order reversing the cut. An appeals court dismissed Condon’s case due to technicalities and did not rule on its merits. The township board’s lower levy was implemented.
Kelly, Lesperance’s lawyer, said he was unfamiliar with the facts of the McHenry Township case and declined to comment on the political aspects of his interpretation of state law that says the highway commissioner’s levies cannot be changed or disapproved by the board, as long as the levies are lawful and fall within the limits allowed under Illinois caps on property tax increases.
He said there are checks and balances for highway commissioner tax levy activity in the form of elections for the office every four years. But the board is not supposed to serve in that type of check and balance capacity, he and Lesperance have argued.
The Nunda Tonwnship board had not filed a response to the complaint as of Tuesday afternoon.
Public records show cities and villages within Nunda Township have seen about $860,000 less from the road district tax levy because of the reductions made from 2015 to 2019, compared with whether the levies had stayed at their average levels in the five years before 2015.
That includes about $271,000 more that could have gone to Crystal Lake, around $230,000 for McHenry, $112,000 for Prairie Grove, $102,000 for Island Lake, $66,000 for Oakwood Hills, $25,000 for Port Barrington, $24,000 for Bull Valley, almost $19,000 for Holiday Hills and $18,000 for Lakemoor, according to McHenry County clerk’s office records.