Attracting, keeping employees a priority in Lake County's $640 million budget

Lake County's property tax levy will increase for the first time in five years to help fund a variety of programs and initiatives in a $640 million budget, including compensation to recruit and retain employees.

The county board this week increased the tax levy by the maximum allowed 5%, though supporters said that won't result in a commensurate hike in property tax bills because new growth will account for about half the increase.

The action immediately preceded the adoption Tuesday of a $640 million budget for the 2024 fiscal year beginning Dec. 1. That's a 5.6% increase over last year's budget total, although operating funds, which account for most government services, were balanced at $375.2 million.

The budget was developed and is aligned with a new strategic county plan that prioritizes safe communities, environmental sustainability, and superior operations among other goals, officials said.

Highlights include a new internal audit division; regional tree initiative; gun violence prevention specialist; and, a diversity, equity and inclusion program, county officials said.

Funding for presidential election year costs and an employee compensation study also are included in the 420-page document. County Clerk Anthony Vega, for example, this past week announced increased pay for poll workers including $225, up from $165, for check-in judges.

The levy was approved 13-3 with members J. Kevin Hunter of Ingleside, Michael Danforth of Fox River Grove, and Linda Pedersen of Antioch voting against. The trio also abstained on the budget vote.

Opponents said they thought the levy increase would be half the amount and couldn't vote for a 5% hike. Supporters said a 5% increase was needed to ensure adequate funding for employee compensation adjustments and other new program requests.

Inflation impacts wages as well as prices and the county is behind in that regard said county board member Paul Frank of Highland Park. He chairs the board's financial and administrative committee, which began the budget review in spring.

"We need to invest in our people, in our current and future workforce to continue to be the national leader that we are as a county government," he said before the vote. "We are addressing wages in this budget, as we must."

Board Member Carissa Casbon, representing the Gurnee area, said the county is making a "critical investment" in staffing that will allow it to "recruit more competitively."

"This is a responsible, forward looking budget," added board member John Wasik of Grayslake. "We already have a great staff and we have to keep pace with the rest of the world."

The budget includes a 4% increase for nonunion staff as well as funding for potential salary, wage and/or benefit adjustments resulting from a compensation study.

Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart said the initiative will allow prosecutors to be paid on par with other collar counties.

"We were losing the battle with respect to competition," he told the board before the vote.

Lake County employs 2,580 full-time and 107 part-time workers. Employee pay and benefits amount to more than half the operating fund budgets.

Lake County government is about 6% of a typical property tax bill. The levy increase is estimated to add about $7 to the tax bill for a home valued at $280,000.

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