Jack Franks guest column: Why Valley Hi rebate should go to homeowners

This column originally appeared in the Northwest Herald.

Valley Hi Nursing Home, which you help subsidize with your property taxes, has amassed a $40 million fund reserve. That’s enough to cover almost four years of its operations. I am certain that I could count the number of McHenry County households that have enough in savings to cover almost four years of expenses – the mortgage, taxes, home repairs, groceries, clothes, everything – on one hand and have fingers left.

That’s a safe bet to make in a county that, on average, pays more in property taxes than 99.99 percent of the rest of the nation. As for the nation, almost 4 out of 5 Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and about half could not come up with $400 in an emergency.

 Long before voters elected me chairman of the County Board, they generously voted to raise their property taxes so McHenry County could build and operate a home to care for our vulnerable and indigent seniors. However, it was not the people’s will for county government to collect tens of millions of tax dollars that it doesn’t need – that’s money that households can’t spend on their needs, or save for retirement, or invest in their children’s educations. This is your money, not the government’s.

I have nothing but praise for the outstanding job that Valley Hi’s employees do every day for our seniors, but there is no need for the facility to be sitting on a reserve that represents more than half of all property taxes levied by McHenry County in a year.

We, your county government, have spent years overtaxing you, and simply put, you, the taxpayer, deserve a refund. The proposal I have submitted to the County Board will, if approved, rebate $15 million of the reserve to homeowners who took the homestead exemption last year, and who paid their property taxes on time. The formula will translate to a refund of about 30 percent of county government’s share of last year’s tax bill – for example, a homeowner who paid $500 in property taxes to county government would get back about $150.

This would leave Valley Hi, which essentially is self-sufficient through years of improved management, a very responsible reserve of $25 million, which will cover more than two years of operations, including enough to fulfill necessary capital expenditures. Nothing will change in Valley Hi’s operations – no services will be affected, and the same high quality of care will be delivered to our residents.

Some have argued that Valley Hi should spend the money to expand. While I admire Valley Hi and the good work it does, it is unconscionable to spend taxpayer money that we never should have accumulated in the first place. That sort of mentality is one of the reasons why so many people distrust government at best and despise it at worst.

Others argue that businesses should be eligible for a slice of the rebate. My rebuttal is simple – homeowners need it more, and not enough is ever done for them. Business is the county’s economic lifeblood, and I am proud of my track record of pro-business legislation during my years as a state lawmaker and County Board chairman. The County Board last year waived a number of fees and lowered others to help business owners, who also have benefited from a new federal tax law that enhanced their deductions, sped up depreciation and decreased their tax burdens. Conversely, that same tax law hurt many McHenry County homeowners by capping the amount of their crushing property tax bills that they can deduct.

McHenry County, for the first time ever, is losing population. Our young people, and the vital 25- to 44-year-old demographic, are settling down elsewhere. Our seniors on fixed income no longer can afford to stay here. The property tax burden is literally ripping families apart. We need to do everything in our power to encourage homeownership and keep families together, here at home, in McHenry County.

Home values still are well below what they were when the housing bubble burst more than a decade ago, yet people’s property tax bills have continued to increase. My constituents see and hear news stories about strong economic growth and new jobs, but look around them and realize that the jobs and the growth aren’t happening here – and more and more of them are voting with their feet.

I ran for chairman in 2016 on a promise to reduce county government’s tax levy by 10 percent. The County Board and I have exceeded that goal – we’ve reduced it two straight years for a total of $18 million. However, we can’t honestly call ourselves taxpayer advocates while Valley Hi has a rainy day fund of almost four years’ worth of other people’s money. Rebating a healthy percentage of it back to you while leaving Valley Hi a responsible reserve is more than the right thing to do. It rights a wrong done to our taxpayers.

• Jack D. Franks, D-Marengo, is chairman of the McHenry County Board.