A political and legal battle is brewing over a move by the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District to buy land in Kane County, which, if successful, would negate an ongoing effort to consolidate it into the village.
To the legal counsel retained by some of its members, the impending purchase makes the district a multicounty entity, which means that the McHenry County Board not only can’t consolidate it under a new law but also loses the authority to appoint its three-member board. But to County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who as a state representative wrote the law allowing the county to abolish certain small units of government, the move is an illegal and immoral attempt to stymie taxpayer relief and accountability.
“This, in my opinion, is a scheme to defraud the taxpayers to perpetrate a fiefdom where the insiders are taking advantage of the taxpayers, and that’s exactly why I wrote the law to consolidate,” Franks, D-Marengo, said Wednesday morning.
About 40,000 residents in Lake in the Hills, Huntley and Crystal Lake are served by the district, which was created in 1963 by voter referendum to handle wastewater management and water pollution control. The district, one of a handful of county bodies that could be eliminated under state law, has been singled out by Franks as a prime candidate for dissolution in a state with almost 7,000 units of local government.
But Derke Price, an attorney representing the district in the land deal and several district members, including its ousted former board president, said the County Board now has no power to do so. He is filing a challenge to the County Board’s vote Tuesday evening to fill two board vacancies.
“The consolidation act that Mr. Franks authored says that it has to be an entity that exists solely within McHenry County, and whose officers are appointed by the county,” Price said. “Because [the sanitary district] is now in two counties, they can’t appoint the officers, and it’s not eligible under the consolidation act, either.”
The land at the heart of the fight is 13.88 acres over the border in Kane County, down Square Barn Road – the district’s boundaries at their closest point are a mile and a half from the county line. Unlike most other governments, sanitary districts can annex down roads without contiguous parcels to help facilitate getting people off of well and septic.
Sanitary district trustees voted in April to annex the right-of-way of all of Square Barn Road.
Price said the district has not yet bought the land, but is under option to do so, pending the needed formalities.
Under the consolidation law that Franks wrote and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed in August, the McHenry and Lake county boards can eliminate governments that are entirely within the respective counties, and to which the boards appoint a majority of the trustees. If the land purchase goes through, the County Board could lose not only the ability to consolidate the sanitary district, but also the power to appoint its trustees, which for multicounty districts falls to the state lawmakers whose districts include its boundaries.
Franks on Tuesday evening, and in a scathing letter he wrote to Price and read on the board floor, called the purchase nothing more than “shenanigans” aimed at stopping the consolidation effort. He spoke immediately after Price addressed the board during public comment.
Franks said the purchase, and a price tag he said was about $900,000, is too far away from current boundaries to serve any legitimate purpose.
“Your argument seems to be that if the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District purchased a condominium on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, since the district has properties in more than one county, they would not be subject to consolidation. These attempts to circumvent the General Assembly’s intent and legislative authority is an illegal affront to local taxpayers,” Franks wrote.
While the sanitary district has maintained that the acquisition is the culmination of more than three years of planning, a review of meeting minutes since 2014 revealed that it was not until March 27 that the district board included land acquisition on its agenda – trustees hired Price at a March 9 meeting. Trustees held a second closed-session discussion for land acquisition on April 27, at which time trustees voted, 2-0, to annex the Square Barn Road right-of-way.