County Board committee rejects Conservation District’s budget proposal

WOODSTOCK – A $28 million spending plan introduced by the McHenry County Conservation District is in limbo after the county Finance and Audit Committee rejected the proposal Thursday and the county board chairman said he will not advance the budget as it currently reads.

The budget drew criticism from McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who felt the addition of about $206,000 in new property tax money ran contrary to the county’s efforts to lower taxes during the past two years.
The bill for a home with a median home value of $215,000 would increase by $6.70 because of the conservation district’s property tax increases, the district’s executive director, Elizabeth Kessler, said.
“I thank [the county board members] that stood for the taxpayers and against property tax increases,” Franks said.
A resolution authorizing the budget was rejected by a 2-4 vote. Committee chairman Michael Skala and board member Stephen Doherty voted in favor of it, while board members Chris Christensen, John Reinert, Michael Vijuk and Larry Smith voted against it. Board member Kelli Wegener had to leave before the vote so she could be honored at the Northwest Herald’s Women of Distinction banquet. Vice Chairwoman Mary McCann was absent.
Although he voted yes, Skala said he did not agree with the budget, but if he had concerns over the tax increases and other budget shortcomings, they should have been aired out months ago. Skala and Wegener said there needs to be better communication between county and conservation district board members regarding budget expectations.
Despite the outcome, the budget resolution can be introduced under the new and unfinished business section of the next county board meeting agenda pending the approval of the board chairman.
However, Franks said he would not be introducing the district’s budget for a full board vote without serious changes.
Because the conservation district’s levy amount this year can’t be changed, as it already was included on residents’ property tax bills, Franks demanded that an amended budget include significant cuts and an agreement that the district’s board lower property taxes next fiscal year.
Franks reiterated that he was not against the conservation district but the $200,000 in new tax revenue was not necessary, especially when the district’s general fund revenue increased by about $400,000 from last year.
“They’re just being greedy,” Franks said. “They ought to remember that we’re all in this together.”
Franks also has criticized Kessler’s employment contract, which could result in her earning more than $200,000 in annual compensation, plus benefits, next fiscal year.
During a presentation ahead of the vote, Kessler said the district acknowledges the steps the county has taken to reduce its portion of the tax levy and thanked board members for holding the line.
“Knowing this, our board of trustees struggled with what they needed to do to fulfill their statutory duty in order to responsibly care for and maintain conservation areas held in public trust,” Kessler said. “We want to remind the county board and taxpayers [that] the district has led this change in holding down property taxes.”
Kessler said that in the past seven years, the conservation district board elected not to take advantage of tax increases available under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law.
Kessler said the district board also has cut costs to cover inflationary costs, utilities, salaries, health care costs and other expenses during each of the seven years.
The conservation district – which began in 1971 with the mission to preserve open space and provide environmental education programs and resources for recreational opportunities – protects more than 25,000 acres throughout McHenry County, according to its website.
Reinert said one of the issues that boils his blood is the amount of land the conservation district has acquired without much oversight on the costs to maintain it.
Although Kessler said acquisitions were necessary to ensure lands were protected during ongoing development, Reinert argued that private entities and other proponents also are interested in buying land for conservation purposes.
“Respectfully, it seems like gluttony to buy all the land and come back and say we need more money to maintain it,” Reinert said. “At some time, we need to cool it.”
Christensen asked the conservation district whether it would need to lay off any employees or remove any programs if they had not received the additional property tax revenue this year.
Kessler said the district would not be able to invest as much into staff but could not answer whether any layoffs would be required.
Christensen also was critical of the amount of land the district acquired. The district’s tentative budget noted $1.5 million in unidentified grant revenue for land acquisition in fiscal 2020.
“You have a district that keeps growing, which I understand is their mission, but when is enough enough?” Christensen asked.
Reactions to the budget from members of the public in attendance at the meeting mostly were positive.
Woodstock resident Larry Fischer said Thursday that there has been a big push to cut taxes in the county, but when he received his latest property tax bill, his county tax only went down by $10.
Although Fischer, who has been in the county for 39 years, said this amount will not dramatically affect his lifestyle, if the conservation district were not properly funded and sites began to deteriorate, that would have a dramatic effect on his lifestyle.
Cynthia Kanner, executive director of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, said she thinks the sites that the conservation district is responsible for require even more help.
“To have a conservation district is very special and should be at the forefront of where we put our emphasis,” Kanner said. “People come to this county because of its beauty.”