Question marks in Kane County's proposed 2014 budget transformed into periods Wednesday as a majority of board members signed off on a one-year plan for unfunded pension liability and a bailout to keep the forest preserve district from raising its tax levy.
Board members expressed concern last week about a plan to shrink the portion of the county's levy dedicated to paying employee pensions. The smaller levy would offset an increase in the county's general fund levy, resulting in an overall flat tax levy for the county. But it also means the county will have less money dedicated to funding its pensions. That liability currently stands at about $45 million. Some board members said they didn't like the idea of not chipping away at debt as much as possible.
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On Wednesday, board members on the Executive Committee learned the county has a big pension funding cushion. Finance Director Joe Onzick said the county has tucked away a $6.14 million balance in the pension payment fund. That balance accumulated because, even just making the regular payment, 24 percent of that money is earmarked to pay down the unfunded portion. Until now, the county board has never pushed the button to shift that money over to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. The current budget plan for 2014, even with the reduced pension levy, would still add some cash to that $6.14 million balance.
"We are actually paying down the unfunded liability," Onzick said. "It's not like if we don't make extra payments that's it's not going to go away. It's just the question of making extra payments, which would lower our payments to IMRF sooner."
Last year the county board sent an extra $1.4 million to the fund to pay off the unfunded liability. The budget calls for a $6.6 million increase in spending for 2014 that will likely remove the possibility of an extra payment in the coming year.
However, the board could decide to shift some of that $6.14 million of pension payment reserves over to IMRF and still gain as much ground on the unfunded debt as last year. Finance Committee Chairman John Hoscheit said he will bring that issue to his committee for a discussion.
Onzick's report seemed to soothe board members' fears of pension neglect, removing a potential major obstacle to final budget approval. Another potential contentious budget issue also seemed to melt away Wednesday as the Executive Committee pushed through a plan to give the Kane County Forest Preserve District a $150,000 riverboat grant. The grant would provide enough money to the district to fund 2 percent raises for staff and fuel projects such as opening up the Brunner Preserve for broad public use. Without the grant, district commissioners (who are also county board members) planned to raise property taxes by about 83 cents for the owner of $225,000 home.
Several board members had expressed concerns about using riverboat funds to fuel ongoing operational costs. But the plan is to only rely on the grant for three years. After that, the retiring of bond debt would free up enough cash for the district to forego the riverboat money and/or a levy increase.
That leaves only two potential problems with the 2014 budget.
Raises for union and nonunion employees are still in negotiation. One known cost is about $600,000 to provide state's attorney and public defender employees raises for the second year in a row. Board members agreed to that raise last year. That was a different county board, so those raises will need to be reauthorized.
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell's budget is still in limbo. Russell submitted his final draft budget but County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen is on vacation and unable to review the proposal until Monday. That's just one day before the full county board will take its first vote on the draft budget. After the vote, the budget goes out for public review and comment for 30 days. Then the board can make any final modifications before final approval in November.