The McHenry County Board's push for countywide tax relief has prompted an advisory referendum aimed at urging local school districts to reduce their property taxes.
The question, which will appear on the March ballot, comes on the heels of the county board's decision last month to cut its own property tax levy by 11.2 percent. It will ask voters whether school districts should follow suit and cut their levies by at least 10 percent by 2020.
"Let's send the shot across the bow. We are serious about this," County Board Chairman Jack Franks said. "We did it, we're happy to work with the other (taxing bodies), but they need to get on board."
The county board voted 21-2 this week to place the nonbinding question on the ballot. Though districts won't be required to take action if the referendum is approved, board member Christopher Spoerl said it would set a goal that could direct budget conversations among school board members and administrators.
"Who else in this county is going to provide that focus?" said Spoerl, a co-author of the proposal. "I think this board can do that, and this is the time that we can do that."
For Huntley Community School District 158, however, such a tax reduction could result in deep cuts to programs and negatively affect the quality of service provided to students, spokesman Dan Armstrong said in a statement. The district, which "strongly opposes" the county's call for a referendum, has practiced strong fiscal responsibility in recent years and has one of the lowest per-student costs in the area, he said.
"The tax-and-spend debate is an honest one. But that debate should never occur without discussing the ramifications of reductions in spending," Armstrong said. "Rather than being made a boogeyman by other taxing bodies that do not fully understand our funding structures and challenges, we invite the county board to examine our budget and audit as examples of balancing funding while not sacrificing the best education we can provide."
Board member Michael Skala, who voted against the measure with Michael Walkup, echoed District 158's concerns, saying each school district has its own circumstances that could make a 10 percent levy cut unfeasible. The referendum question likely won't fix wasteful spending or make school districts more efficient, he said, but communicating and working directly with school officials might help.
"This is a boastful resolution that plays well for sound bites and for politicians out campaigning," Skala said.
Regardless of whether districts are able to achieve a full 10 percent cut, Spoerl, a former Cary Elementary District 26 school board president, said setting such a goal could get school officials thinking of new ways to save money.
The referendum question gives voters an opportunity to weigh in on the property tax issue, which is causing residents to move out of McHenry County, Franks said. It also puts pressure on the county board to maintain its levy reduction in the future.
"Never underestimate the greed of government," Franks said. "We need to hold everybody accountable, including ourselves. This resolution does it."