Court ruling allows Grafton Twp. highway commissioner to collect more in taxes
A McHenry County court ruling this week will allow the Grafton Township highway commissioner to collect about 14% more in property taxes.
Highway Commissioner Frank Kearns filed a lawsuit against the township's board after it reduced his property tax levy for the upcoming year.
Judge Kevin Costello found the board lacked the legal authority to cut the levy.
As a result, property owners in Grafton Township, which includes parts of Algonquin, Huntley and Lake in the Hills, collectively could provide 14% more in property taxes to the road district over last year's tax levy, according to the lawsuit.
Kearns requested a road district levy of almost $821,000, about 14% more than the levy passed last year. However, the Grafton Township board at its Dec. 20 meeting disagreed and voted to pass a levy of about $756,000.
In his legal filings, Kearns argued that the board does not have the option to alter the levy under state law, noting the cut would prevent him from being able to tax a total of at least $259,384 through 2024 because of state limits on property tax increases.
His suit listed that amount as the damages the board caused with its levy reduction.
The ruling in Kearns' favor echoed another by a McHenry County judge made last week that sided with Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance in a dispute with his township's board after it altered the levy he proposed.
Both decisions said the highway commissioner's office has "sole authority" to determine the property tax levy, which has raised concerns among some current and former local officials that there is not a mechanism to check, change or revise a highway commissioner's taxing practices.
Highway commissioners have said those concerns should be addressed in the state legislature rather than by advocates of shrinking township government who run for local office to push through funding reductions from the inside.
"It's always nice to see the township board and the highway commissioner work together in unison," Kearns attorney Jim Militello said. "However, as we've seen changes in law over the years, if you want to make changes, you need to do so at the legislature."
Although a township's board cannot affect the levy, it does possess the power to reduce, augment and modify a road district's budget before it's approved.
That provides sufficient financial oversight of the highway commissioner's office, said Jerry Crabtree, executive director of Township Officials of Illinois, a Springfield-based advocacy group.
"The relationship between the highway commissioner and township board is unique in Illinois," Crabtree said.
Joe Gottemoller, the attorney representing the Grafton Township board, disagreed that the rulings out of McHenry County reflect an accurate reading of state law.
He said he thinks there has been a misunderstanding of what the law grants the highway commissioner "sole authority" over.
The state law was meant to give the highway commissioner full discretion over salaries for road district workers, and the township board can have more involvement on a road district's tax levy passage than the "ministerial duty" to approve it that the court found, Gottemoller said.
"Every organization has checks and balances. And the road district's checks and balances with what the rulings are today is that the budget is controlled by the board and the levy is not," said Gottemoller, who also is a county board member. "And that does not make a lot of sense."