Are your property taxes too high? Of course they are. Living in northern Illinois, all property owners pay high taxes. In fact, many national surveys rank us in the top 20 highest property taxes paid. Other than complaining to your neighbor, what can you do about it.
Actually, there is something you can do about it – hold your elected officials responsible. That is, once a year, if not more – attend a school board meeting to ask them exactly what the money is used for. Ask them why they feel the need to increase your tax levy.
The next meeting of Community High School District 155, which covers four area high schools, including Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake South, Crystal Lake Central and Prairie Ridge, is at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the district’s administration building, 1 Virginia St., north of the intersection of Berkshire Drive. At this upcoming meeting, the board will be taking a final vote on whether or not to increase the tax levy. All property owners in the District should attend to hear how their tax dollars are being spent.
Pull out your real estate tax bill and you’ll probably notice that the two highest amounts listed are for school districts. Likely it’ll be your elementary school district and your high school district. In fact, those two districts combined equal roughly two-thirds of your tax bill in McHenry County. About 25 percent goes to the high schools while 40 percent or so goes toward the preK-8 schools.
The Nov. 21 meeting will be your chance to voice your concerns and then listen to the rationale for the increase. At the board’s October meeting, a preliminary vote was taken and passed 6-2 for the increase to the tax levy.
Several of the members of the board who ran in the last election voiced concerns that property taxes were too high, and they would do something about it. This is their chance to do it.
One part of the conversation that got tough for some attendees is when a couple of the school board members mentioned that there is serious thought being given to consolidating schools. It was noted that with declining student enrollment there are a lot of empty classrooms.
There was specific mention that Crystal Lake Central, the oldest of the four, is the only school without air conditioning in the lunchroom and that this space is often utilized on hot days as flex-space allowing students to do homework and other activities within it. The cost of which is included in the $50 million maintenance price tag that is being used to justify the need for the full tax levy.
The student enrollment of the District is 6,248 this year; whereas, in 2005, it was 6,682, a decrease of 6.5 percent. In 2006, a $250,000 home in the district paid about $1,558 in taxes to the district or $0.23 per student. In 2016, however, a $250,000 home paid $2,284 or $0.36 per student, a 60 percent increase. The taxes in that 10-year period increased $726, or 46 percent. District 155 projects future enrollment declines.
The district’s annual budget calls for roughly $96 million in expenses. They also receive about the same in revenues partially from state funding, but mostly through property taxes. The district has roughly $55 million in reserves. That’s a good thing and equals about 6 months’ reserves. Most businesses suggest that a solid reserve requirement is 6 to 12 months, but the school district isn’t a business. In business, revenues are not guaranteed. In school districts, property tax revenues are guaranteed revenue. Property taxes are only cut if the board wills it.
Furthermore, looking at staffing levels, the District has 780 employees where only half are educators. Focusing on administrative staff specifically, in 2003 there were 26 and now 52, a 100 percent increase. Perhaps some fine tuning of some positions could be considered to significantly reduce expenses.
Finally, comes the question of whether any of the members of the board might be conflicted. That is, if a board member is related to someone employed by the district wouldn’t that constitute a conflict of interest? In the not-for-profit world such conflict would be rationale for the member to abstain from the vote or even recuse him/herself from the conversation.
Again, taxpayers have an opportunity to speak their opinions and let their feelings be known, regardless of which side of the argument they’re on.
Speak now or forever pay our taxes.
• Jim Haisler, MRE, RCE, is CEO for the Heartland Realtor Organization, headquartered in Crystal Lake, a nonprofit trade organization serving more than 1,100 real estate-related professionals throughout Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin