McCaleb: Local governments must take lead in reducing tax burden

Illinois News Network

Updated

It’s business as usual in Springfield during the 2017 legislative session, minus one particularly vocal component.

As lawmakers debate a flawed “Grand Bargain” that is much more grand rip-off for taxpayers, longtime state Rep. Jack Franks is, for the first time in 18 years, not participating directly in the legislative process.

Franks was somewhat of an anomaly in Springfield: a Democrat who sometimes gave long and loud rants on the House floor against tax increases.

Frustrated with the broken system controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan, Franks decided to run for local office rather than seek a 10th term as Illinois’ 63rd district representative.

In a largely Republican county, Franks was elected McHenry County Board chairman in November. Though his elected office has switched zip codes, his message from his statehouse days has not changed: Illinoisans are overtaxed and, unless something drastic is done to reduce the burden, the state’s fate of fiscal insolvency is sealed.

“Because of the dysfunction in Springfield and the way it’s off the rails, we can’t wait on them to help taxpayers. We have to do it ourselves,” Franks said.

“Do it ourselves” to Franks and some of his colleagues in county government means reducing taxes – specifically cutting county property owners’ tax levy by at least 10 percent.

Before I dig deeper into that endeavor, some perspective:

Illinoisans pay the highest combined state and local taxes in the nation, according to a recent study by WalletHub. As a result, the state has been bleeding residents. Illinois’ population has decreased each year since 2013, the only state in the region to do so.

At the same time, Illinois is in the worst fiscal shape in the country. State employees’ unsustainable pension benefits are underfunded by more than $130 billion. Unpaid bills to vendors such as nonprofit social service agencies and small businesses total more than $12 billion. Both deficits continue to grow rapidly because state lawmakers refuse to address the core policy failures that created them.

As bad as Illinois’ taxing situation is, McHenry County residents have it worse on average than their brethren statewide. The county’s median effective property tax rate – the percent of their homes’ value that they pay in property taxes each year – is a crippling 4 percent, highest of any in Chicago and the collar counties.

It’s also much higher than its neighbors to the north in Walworth County, Wis.

On average, the owner of a $200,000 home in McHenry County pays about $8,000 a year in property taxes. In Walworth County, where the effective property tax rate is 1.9 percent, it’s $3,800 annually.

McHenry County’s outmigration problem also is worse than Illinois as a whole. The county’s population has declined every year since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The data speaks for itself. Taxpayers, in McHenry County and across Illinois, can’t take it anymore.

Franks and many of his colleagues on the McHenry County Board are prepared to do something about it.

In a bipartisan effort, county leaders pledge to cut the county’s overall budget – and as a result, taxpayers’ bill from the county – by 10 percent.

McHenry County government collects about $80 million in property taxes from county residents annually, Franks said. By next year, it will be no more than $72 million, a 10 percent decrease, he added

Newly elected McHenry County Board member Andrew Gasser, a Republican, is working closely with Franks on the reduction. Gasser recently helped craft a resolution, scheduled to be voted on by the full County Board in April, to make the 10 percent reduction happen.

“McHenry County is the 29th highest property tax county in the United States,” Gasser said. “We all have to take responsibility for [reducing the tax burden], whatever level of government we’re in.”

The resolution, if approved, will create a task force of County Board members to work with paid staff to recommend the necessary expense cuts by June 30 and, after time for negotiations on the proposed cuts, to enact the reduced budget in advance of the new fiscal year on Dec. 1.

Of course, the county’s levy is a small portion of property owners’ overall tax bill, so much more needs to be done.

“What we need to do now is put pressure on these school boards,” which have the largest impact on local property tax bills, Franks noted.

But Franks, who campaigned for County Board chairman on the resolve to reduce taxes, is encouraged.

“It’s funny because no one was talking about this before,” he said. “Since then, we’ve had a number of townships [McHenry and Grafton township and the  Algonquin and McHenry Township Road Districts] who cut their levies by 10 percent. This could be very, very significant. … We’ll be seen as the model on how to get things done.”

It’s a model that needs to be duplicated in most every taxing agency in Illinois, including the statehouse in Springfield.

Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network. Dan can be reached at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.