Kane County Forest Preserve commissioners decried a budgetary shell game at both the county and the forest preserve district Friday even while approving a plan that bails the district out of having to increase its property tax levy next year.
Commissioners, who also serve as county board members, learned Friday a new version of the forest preserve budget applies a $150,000 riverboat gambling funds grant to several one-time construction projects. The original plan used that grant money for staff raises and received a preliminary approval from the county board's executive committee earlier this week.
Several commissioners said they don't like the financial policy implications of the plan, but they voted to go along with the strategy for the sake of keeping the district's tax levy flat.
Commissioner Mike Donahue summed up the concerns in citing the inability of the riverboat funds to support operations in the long term either at the county or the forest preserve district. Riverboat proceeds for the continue to drop as competition increases for gambling dollars.
"We've lost 60 percent of the riverboat revenues," Donahue said. "Where are we going to make the corresponding cuts? There's a lot of shells being moved around so we can say that we froze the tax levy. I'm talking about form over substance. We're borrowing from Peter. We're paying Paul. And, bingo, we have a flat levy. We need to be following sound policies with how these funds are used. Our use of the riverboat fund is not sound."
Commissioner Phil Lewis said the problem at the county goes deeper than just overreliance on riverboat money. Lewis raised the issue of expenses increasing by about $6.6 million in the county in the proposed budget.
"We're taking our increased revenues, and we're immediately spending it on our operations," Lewis said. "I've got a real problem with that."
Commissioner Drew Frasz, who is also vice chairman of the county board, was the lone commissioner to fully defend the budget plans for the county and forest preserve district.
"I do think making a promise to the public not to raise taxes and sticking with it is a noble gesture," Frasz said.
Such a gesture may only be a calm before the storm, warned Commissioner Barb Wojnicki.
"We can be passing flat levies, but eventually I think it's going to catch up to us," Wojnicki said. "I'm fearful that the taxpayer will then get hit even harder than they would just with a tiny increase every year."
That same fear applies to the county's bond rating. Commissioners said balancing the county board budget will involve either spending down reserves or not putting as much into reserve accounts as in years past.
"It's nice to say we have flat tax levies, and I have no problems with the riverboat grant," Commissioner Maggie Auger said. "But I do have a concern when we start taking money out of IMRF and the insurance levy and bringing those balances down. Right now we can borrow money at low rates because we have saved money."
Both the county board and the forest preserve district are set to vote on preliminary 2014 budgets next Tuesday. If approved, those budgets will then go on display for public comment for 30 days. Any final tinkering after that period must be complete before the new fiscal year begins on Dec. 1.