Nunda Twp. highway commissioner sues township board over levy dispute

Nunda Township's highway commissioner filed a lawsuit last week against the local government's board of trustees, following through on a threat he made earlier this month to challenge the body's decision to alter his proposed property tax levies for the coming year.

At the heart of the dispute is whether the township board has authority under state law to alter the levies Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance brought forward for board approval.

By changing Lesperance's proposals before they were sent to the McHenry County clerk's office, the board was trying to share more of the township road district's revenues with the cities and villages within the township than Lesperance wanted, board members have said.

"The highway commissioner determines the levy. That's not a gray area," Lesperance's Crystal Lake-based attorney, James P. Kelly, said in an interview.

The lawsuit was not unexpected. Trustee Tim Parrish last week, after being informed that Lesperance intended to sue in McHenry County court, called it a "sad day for our township."

The spat between Lesperance and the board has highlighted concerns of municipal officials like McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, who has criticized Lesperance for an obscure property tax practice that, since 2015, has left local governments with nearly $900,000 less in road maintenance funding than they would have seen under previous taxing arrangements.

Yet, some current and former village officials are not opposed to Lesperance's leadership.

In Nunda Township elections earlier this year, former Island Lake Public Works Director Brian Bartnick threw his support behind Lesperance, who won the Republican primary by 125 votes over challenger Eric Dowd. The challenger had made the declining municipal funding a central issue of the race, according to the Lesperance campaign.

"I've been dealing with Mike for almost seven years with the Village of Island Lake. He has been a tremendous help many times. I hope Island Lake residents vote for him," Bartnick is quoted by a campaign social media page as saying in February.

Neither Lesperance nor Scott Puma, an attorney for the township board, returned requests for comment.

Each year, township road districts levy property taxes for different funds. State law requires that a certain portion of one of the funds be shared with the city or village in which the taxpayer lives, while townships are given sole control over the other fund.

Since Lesperance took office in 2013, he has lowered tax collections for the fund that cities and villages are supposed to get a cut of and at the same time, raised the levies for the district's permanent road fund, which goes to only the township.

The highway commissioner's proposed levy for next year would have allocated almost $583,000 to the road and bridge fund shared with municipalities, and more than $2.3 million to the permanent road fund controlled solely by the Nunda Township Road District.

Trustee Rob Parrish ultimately agreed to pass a levy of almost $3.2 million total as Lesperance wanted, but insisted on trimming the township-dedicated fund to $1.89 million. Parrish also proposed beefing up the fund shared with cities and villages to just more than $1 million.

Parrish's balance of the separate levies, which would raise funds shared with cities and villages and reduce the fund for only the township, passed 3-2. Support came from Parrish and his brother, Trustee Tim Parrish, and Trustee Johanna Donahue.

Trustee Karen Tynis and Supervisor Leda Drain voted no. Both said they wanted to avoid provoking Lesperance into filing a lawsuit against the board over the matter.

Last year, McHenry Township Highway Commissioner Jim Condon filed a lawsuit citing similar legal arguments after his township board voted to lower his proposed levy by about a $1 million. A McHenry County judge dismissed Condon's request for an order reversing the cut and an appeals court dismissed the case.

Public records show cities and villages within Nunda Township have seen about $860,000 less from the road district tax levy because of the reductions made from 2015 to 2019. That includes about $271,000 more that could have gone to Crystal Lake, about $230,000 less for McHenry, $112,000 less for Prairie Grove, $102,000 less for Island Lake, $66,000 less for Oakwood Hills, $25,000 less for Port Barrington, $24,000 less for Bull Valley, almost $19,000 less for Holiday Hills and $18,000 less for Lakemoor, according to McHenry County clerk's office records.

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