Note to readers: This editorial has been updated to clarify that the proposed fee for recording mortgages was revised to $56 after the Finance Committee meeting.
On the issue of how to set fees for the McHenry County Recorder’s Office for 2019, both County Board Chairman Jack Franks and Recorder Joe Tirio can claim to be right.
Franks is fundamentally right: It’s illogical for a county office with a $2.5 million-and-growing surplus to propose a fee schedule that would bring in $20,000 more in fees next year. The county should be able to reduce recording fees at a level that reduces that surplus rather than adds to it.
Tirio is technically right: A state law mandating changes to his office’s fee system only allows recording fees to be set either at a level that’s less than half what people pay now, or the average of what they’ve collected over the past three years.
Meanwhile, the nine board members who walked out of a Sept. 13 meeting to stop Franks from questioning Tirio got it wrong. Those members – Joe Gottemoller, John Jung, Craig Wilcox, Jeff Thorsen, Chuck Wheeler, Michael Rein, Jim Kearns, Chris Christensen and Chris Spoerl – left the meeting and left the board without a quorum – stopping Franks from asking questions on the issue.
It’s not good government to cut off questioning of a public official about a matter of public interest at a public meeting. It undercuts government accountability, which is the last thing elected board members should seek to do. Wheeler later used an expletive to complain that Franks’ questioning was politically motivated, which is odd given that he and his colleagues had just launched a coordinated effort to stop the questioning.
If someone had asked these questions sooner, maybe the recorder’s office wouldn’t be sitting on $2.5 million in “surplus” public funds.
As to the recording fees: State law requires the recorder to change the fees for recording records such as mortgages, deeds and leases by Jan. 1. The law mandating this change spells out two ways of doing this: Either the county can set the cost for recording these documents at $21, or it can set them at the average amount paid to file those documents over the past three years, rounded up to the nearest dollar. The law says the county also can pass an ordinance to increase those fees but needs a study to justify it.
It says nothing about decreasing the fees.
The proposal by Tirio, as approved 5-1 by the finance committee, is to charge a $61 flat fee to record a mortgage. Ater the meeting, that proposal was revised to charge $56 for recording documents such as mortgages, which would eliminate what would have been an estimated $20,000 in additional fee collections.
Tirio is correct in his reading of the state law – it provides two options for setting simplified fees for next year, and he proposed the one that is feasible. The fees as proposed would bring in an estimated $20,000 or more for the office in 2019.
But Franks is correct that in McHenry County’s case, that course of action makes no sense. Given that the recorder’s office already is sitting on $2.5 million in surplus funds, the county should be lowering fees – or better yet, find a way to use those funds to reduce property taxes.
In a Sept. 6 meeting of the county Finance & Audit Committee, Tirio said that his office had no near-term plan for the funds, although using blockchain technology to safeguard the integrity of the county’s digital record-keeping system is a possibility in the future.
Tirio has taken measures that have saved his office money, such as decommissioning a former data center, and under his administration the automation fee surplus has grown by $300,000.
It needs to be spent, somehow. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that anyone will sue county government if it sets recording fees lower.
It should be within the county’s power to pass an ordinance setting flat fees at a level it determines will cover costs, nothing more.
The surplus funds also should be put to use – either by putting them toward the county budget and allowing a property tax levy reduction, or on other necessary capital projects.
The area’s state legislators should work to amend the law to allow for a common-sense solution – capping filing fees at the average cost, while giving counties free rein to reduce them below that. Their help also could be needed to solve the automation fund surplus issue.
Also ideally, County Board members will stop blocking legitimate questions about how much county government charges residents for its services.