Editorial: MCCD budget fuss could have been avoided

WOODSTOCK – Leaders at the McHenry County Conservation District must create a workable budget that doesn’t require an increase in property taxes.

They have the resources to do so; they have done it in the past, and they should commit to doing it next year, and for as long as possible. Without such commitments from local governments large and small, our too-high property taxes will only continue to increase.
The Conservation District’s proposed budget for this fiscal year was denied by the McHenry County Finance and Audit Committee last week because it increased property tax collection by about $200,000, boosting the property tax levy to about $8 million. The increase will cost the owner of a $215,000 home about $7 more in annual property tax.
That might not seem like much, but it’s how we got into this property tax predicament in the first place. The townships and park districts, conservation districts and school districts all take a little more each year, and now homeowners are saddled with annual tax bills of $8,000, $10,000 or more. 
Conservation district officials plan to revise their budget Thursday in hopes of winning approval from the County Board. They should not only do that, but also make commitments to control costs in the future. 
Under chairman Jack Franks’ leadership, the County Board has embarked on a campaign to cut spending and taxes, and has succeeded in reducing the county’s overall property tax collection by more than 12% since 2017, adding in the Valley Hi Nursing Home tax rebate this year.
The increase in this year’s Conservation District budget is out of step, and suggests that the district was consciously going against the grain of what is going on.
Franks has pointed out that the district ended last year with a $750,000 surplus and projects a $400,000 increase in general fund revenue over last year.
There’s no need for more money from local property taxes – if anything, they should be less. 
There’s also the matter of wage inflation at the district, starting with its leader, Elizabeth Kessler, who has a four-year contract that automatically renews every two years, with guaranteed increases of 4% each year.
Since the deal was signed in 2010, Kessler’s salary has increased 35%, and will be more than $194,000 in the next fiscal year – a rate higher than the county administrator.
The district’s proposed budget calls for a 5.4% increase in employee salaries overall in the next year, an increase of $272,000 over the previous year. In the 2018-19 budget, salaries increased 4.3%, a total of $209,000. 
Getting a handle on salary costs from the top down should be a priority. Past County Board members have questioned the need for the Conservation District to maintain a separate police force, which includes eight full-time officers and a $1.5 million budget – about 16% of MCCD’s total budget. 
Serious study is needed on whether this is essential, or an unnecessary extravagance whose function could be achieved through agreements with county or local law enforcement. 
Changes to MCCD’s volunteer board should lead to change. The district’s seven-member board is made up of unpaid volunteers who are appointed by the County Board chairman to five-year, nonrenewing terms. Two board members, President Dave Kranz and Treasurer Peter Merkel, will leave the board in June after completing their five-year terms, and Franks will appoint their successors.
Franks should appoint members who will protect the county’s natural resources, but do so with an eye toward minimizing the local tax burden. McHenry County’s natural beauty long has been one of the most important factors in the quality of life it offers residents. The public has shown that it supports its mission.
The public also is sick and tired of Illinois’ high property taxes. Future budgets must be built with the ample resources the public already provides.