Local News

Grafton Township highway commissioner wins court ruling against township board, allowing 14% tax increase

Case reiterates trustees lack authority to scale back road district levy

Grafton Township Supervisor Eric Ruth (from left), trustee Dan Ziller and trustee Sean Cratty go over township expenses during Monday's Board of Trustees meeting.

A McHenry County court on Tuesday ruled in favor of Grafton Township Highway Commissioner Frank Kearns in a lawsuit he filed against the township’s Board of Trustees after it reduced his property tax levy for the upcoming year.

Judge Kevin Costello found the board lacks the legal authority to cut a property tax levy presented by the township highway commissioner, whose office has the duty to establish the levy, the court said.

As a result, property owners in Grafton Township, which includes Huntley and unincorporated areas of McHenry County west of Lake in the Hills, collectively could provide 14% more in property taxes to the road district over last year’s tax levy, according to the lawsuit.

Kearns determined that the road district should pass a levy of almost $821,000, about 14% more than the levy passed last year. However, the Grafton Township Board of Trustees at its Dec. 20 meeting disagreed and voted to pass a levy of about $756,000.

In his legal filings, Kearns argued that the board does not have the option to alter the levy under state law, noting the cut would prevent him from being able to tax a total of at least $259,384 through 2024 because of Illinois limits on property tax increases.

His suit listed that amount as the damages the board caused with its levy reduction.

The ruling in Kearns’ favor echoed another by a McHenry County judge made last week that sided with Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance in a dispute with his township’s Board of Trustees after it altered the levy he proposed.

Both decisions said the highway commissioner’s office has “sole authority” to determine the property tax levy, which has raised concerns among some current and former local officials that there is not a mechanism to check, change or revise a highway commissioner’s taxing practices.

Highway commissioners have said those concerns should be addressed in Springfield in the state Legislature rather than by advocates of shrinking township government who run for local office to push through funding reductions from the inside.

“It’s always nice to see the township board and the highway commissioner work together in unison,” Kearns attorney Jim Militello said. “However, as we’ve seen changes in law over the years, if you want to make changes, you need to do so at the Legislature.”

Although a township’s board of trustees cannot affect the levy, it does possess the power to reduce, augment and modify a road district’s budget before it’s approved.

That provides sufficient financial oversight of the highway commissioner’s office, said Jerry Crabtree, executive director of Township Officials of Illinois, a Springfield-based advocacy group.

“The relationship between the highway commissioner and township board is unique in Illinois,” Crabtree said. “The [Nunda Township board members] were trying to really strong-arm a highway commissioner. The way the courts ruled, we have always interpreted it that way from this office’s perspective.”

Joe Gottemoller, the attorney representing the Grafton Township board, disagreed that the rulings out of McHenry County reflect an accurate reading of state law.

He said he thinks there has been a misunderstanding of what the law grants the highway commissioner “sole authority” over.

The state law was meant to give the highway commissioner full discretion over salaries for road district workers, and the township board can have more involvement on a road district’s tax levy passage than the “ministerial duty” to approve it that the court found, Gottemoller said.

“Every organization has checks and balances. And the road district’s checks and balances with what the rulings are today is that the budget is controlled by the board and the levy is not,” said Gottemoller, who also is a County Board member. “And that does not make a lot of sense.”

He said he thinks state lawmakers should clarify this matter, as does Bob Anderson, a longtime critic of township government who served as a McHenry Township trustee for a term until this spring.

Anderson spearheaded a huge cut to the McHenry Township Road District tax levy last year that was unsuccessfully challenged in court by that agency’s highway commissioner, and he thinks the state Legislature could install elected positions meant to oversee that office in the way Gottemoller suggested.

“No one should have sole authority over anything,” Anderson said.