Kane County tax back on the table in time for local elections

Just in time for the 2022 election, Kane County Board members will begin discussions about potential tax increases and budget cuts needed to balance the 2023 budget.

Everything from a gas tax hike and a new county sales tax to a 10% budget cut is on the table.

The board balanced the current year’s budget with a mix of savings and federal COVID-19 relief money that filled a $16 million shortfall. There won’t be enough money in either pool to address projected future budget shortfalls, said Dale Berman, chairman of the board’s finance committee.

“We need an increase in revenue,” Berman said.

The council considered a county gas tax increase last year. He also considered maximizing a cost-of-living hike from the county property tax. The majority of the board didn’t think they could sell those raises to voters when they had $103 million in unspent federal COVID-19 relief money.

About $66 million of that federal money still hasn’t been spent. Several county council members believe that the best use of the money is to spend it on county expenses and services for as long as it can be justified to the federal government.

But even these officials recognize that this is a temporary solution.

Board member Vern Tepe is one of the county’s staunchest advocates, which raises its property tax by the maximum cost-of-living amount each year. Such an increase had not occurred for a decade.

This property tax freeze has been a popular selling point for the re-election efforts of many board members over the years. But the lump sum levy also spurred the freezing of employee wages.

Pay rates, like for county health department nurses, are so low now that the starting salary is half of what a first-year nurse would get anywhere else in the region. Employees throughout the county’s legal system also left for better-paying jobs in other counties.

The animal control department raised its hourly wage a month ago because it was losing employees to fast food restaurants and retail stores.

The 2023 fiscal year begins on December 1, 2022.

The first stage of the 2023 budget will ask county departments to write a plan showing what a 10% budget cut would look like for each of them. Officials are also awaiting outside analysis of county services and spending to find new efficiencies.

County Board Chair Corinne Pierog isn’t optimistic the report will show a lot of government fat to cut. A similar study in 2017 showed nearly all county departments were as lean as possible without cutting services, many of which are mandated by state law.

“Money is tight right now,” Pierog said. “We want to make sure that we have a rational approach and a data-driven approach.”

Last year, discussions indicated that doubling the county’s gas tax would bring in $1.8 million in new revenue. The county property tax increase would net $3 million and cost the average homeowner an additional $20, according to Tepe.

And creating a 0.25% county sales tax on retail products could generate up to $5 million in new money. A new sales tax would require voter approval via a countywide referendum.

The 24 members of the county council are eligible for re-election this year.

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