County Board Chairman Jack Franks Delivers Annual State of the County Address
The following is the text of the annual State of the County Address delivered Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, by County Board Chairman Jack Franks, D-Marengo:
Good evening. It is my honor and privilege to welcome our County Board members, county elected officials, department heads, staff, and the public – here in the audience and watching at home – to the annual State of the County Address, and I am pleased to report that the state of our county is strong.
Holding the office of County Board Chairman has its share of ups and downs; of good times and awful. It comes with great joys, such as when we congratulate teams like the Richmond-Burton High School Rockets for winning the state football championship, or when we thank a first-grade class at Briargate Elementary School in Cary for working with our Division of Transportation to post warning signs to save geese from getting hit by cars.
And it comes with great sorrows, such as saying goodbye to McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Keltner, who heroically gave his life in the line of duty, or mourning young A.J. Freund, senselessly killed by his parents, and let down by a system that failed to protect him.
Being elected Chairman of the McHenry County Board is a humbling and enriching experience. We have a lot to be proud of – and we have a lot more work to do to meet our goal of being the most efficient, taxpayer friendly, open and transparent county government in the nation.
Let’s start with some highlights of the accomplishments we’ve achieved together over the past year.
Our most crowning achievement this year was rebating $15 million of the surplus from the Valley Hi fund reserve. The response from our overtaxed constituents was overwhelming. More than 50,000 homeowners – that’s more than 60 percent of them – applied for a rebate, and we paid out more than $8.5 million to them. That’s money that people spent in local businesses or saved for a rainy day. For those on fixed incomes trying to stay afloat, it was that month’s medications or utility payments. As for the unclaimed remainder, it returned back to the Valley Hi fund, where an incredibly healthy surplus remains to not only ensure Valley Hi Nursing Home’s continued financial stability, but also further expand Valley Hi’s outstanding services by building a memory care facility.
The rebate program yielded an unforeseen benefit – hundreds of homeowners who didn’t have the homestead exemption for whatever reason signed up for it, saving them thousands of dollars in future years.
You won’t find very many instances of government cutting taxes while simultaneously rebating money to the taxpayers and expanding services while staying on very solid fiscal footing – we have set the example for other governments to follow. I’m happy we set that example. Thank you to County Administrator Peter Austin, Deputy Administrator Scott Hartman, and our department heads, for your hard work. And we couldn’t have done it without the dedication and leadership of Valley Hi Administrator Tom Annarella. Tom, thank you for all you do for McHenry County’s seniors.
Two months ago, we approved a 2020 county budget that reduced our property-tax levy for the third straight year. We didn’t just abate our levy - we gave our taxpayers a permanent tax cut. We’ve saved our taxpayers more that $28 million over the past three years. That’s right – we cut our tax levy for the third straight year and made the tax cuts permanent, saving our taxpayers more than $28 million.
After two years of abatements to preserve our taxing ability, we realized that our financial footing was so healthy that we could give our homeowners and businesses a permanent reduction. Again, thanks goes to Mr. Austin, Mr. Hartmann, and Senior Financial Analyst Kerri Weisz - especially Kerri, who really stepped up to the plate when needed. And of course, thank you to our department heads for once again, like they do every year, doing more with less and constantly seeking efficiencies.
The tax burden that our homeowners and businesses struggle under must always be at the forefront of our minds, because it’s the one thing over which we have the most control – and ladies and gentlemen, we’ve done a great job. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate our other achievements.
As a lifelong Marengo resident, I’m thrilled that McHenry County finally has direct access to I-90 through a full interchange at Route 23.
Last year was the year that the dream became a reality. It was achieved by working together with the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Tollway and the City of Marengo – each of us contributing to make this happen. I’m confident that the interchange will blossom into the industrial hub that Marengo envisions, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and millions of dollars in new tax revenue that we will be able to translate into further property tax relief.
Thank you to former County Board Chairman Joe Gottemoller for his hard work on the I-90 project, and a special thank you to Scott Hartman, who worked on this project for the City of Marengo before Pete, wisely, hired him away to McHenry County.
While we’ve planted the seeds of a future economic engine, we’re halfway through a project to improve another – the Randall Road corridor in Lake in the Hills and Algonquin. When it’s done, the 80,000 drivers who take Randall Road daily will have an easier, safer, and faster drive, and access will be improved to the many stores and restaurants that pour millions of dollars into our economy. This wouldn’t have been possible without the talents of County Engineer Joe Korpalski, Assistant County Engineer Jeff Young, and the talented staff at the Division of Transportation. And thank you to the plow crews for the wonderful job they did a week and a half ago clearing our county highways of that ungodly mix of rain, sleet and snow.
Our county highway system isn’t the only infrastructure that received an upgrade in 2019.
Last year, we remodeled and renovated the county Administration Building to maximize our existing space without raising taxes. We added meeting space, prepared for the impending consolidation of the Recorder’s Office, and relocated the administrative offices of the Department of Health. We renovated Annex A and moved the walk-in clinic from Annex B, a worn-down building that soon will be demolished. If you haven’t had a chance to tour the new clinic, please do so – it looks great! Thank you to Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson and Facilities Manager Tom Burroughs for your hard work.
Most other governments wanting to do what we did would have developed an “edifice complex” and built a Taj Mahal with all the trimmings – and then would have handed their taxpayers the bill. We didn’t do that. On my first day in office, I told administration that we wouldn’t entertain the purchase of new buildings to grow our campus, and that we would instead remodel existing structures. We thought outside the box and we saved taxpayers millions.
Speaking of improving our quality of life with existing facilities, this is the year that Pioneer Center for Human Services will open a full-time, 70-bed homeless shelter south of McHenry. Like the I-90 project, stakeholders came together to address a need and got it done. Thank you to Pioneer Center, the McHenry County Mental Health Board, and to the parishioners of The Chapel who generously donated the space.
In my past two State of the County Addresses, I was proud to bring up the reforms we accomplished together to be more responsive to the people and to help restore their faith in government. Last year was no exception.
I’m not going to rehash the deep and systemic problems that plagued the McHenry County Coroner’s Office as a result of years of mismanagement by past elected coroners. The majority of you agreed that a new course needed to be set – that the centuries-old practice of electing a coroner based solely on the fact that he or she is a voting adult living in McHenry County, with zero consideration for job experience, is a terrible way to select the person responsible for determining cause of death and consoling grieving next of kin.
As a result, we will be asking the voters this November whether we should professionalize the Coroner’s Office by abolishing the elected position and replacing it with a full-time hired professional. Thank you to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Coroner’s Office: members Michele Aavang, Stephen Doherty, Joe Gottemoller, Mary McCann, Bob Nowak, Carolyn Schofield, Michael Vijuk, Paula Yensen, and State’s Attorney Pat Kenneally. And once again, a very special thank you to Sheriff Bill Prim, and Lieutenant John Miller, for stabilizing the office and supervising it until we hear from the public what they want.
Several County Board members made clear the night of the vote that they personally oppose eliminating an elected coroner, but supported giving their constituents the right to decide at the ballot box. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge you for putting principle over politics and personal feelings. We need more of that in government, especially during what I like to refer to as “the silly season” with elections taking place this year.
I’m also not going to rehash the years of financial reporting problems in our Regional Office of Education. This March, our voters will get to weigh in on the structure of their government with an advisory referendum regarding the future of that elected office. Thank you to the County Board for again putting trust in the voters where it belongs.
There’s no way I could list all of our 2019 accomplishments in one speech – that is, unless everyone here brought sleeping bags – but I’ll wrap up my summary with some good news in our war against the scourge of opioid addiction.
We sometimes have our differences, but we in McHenry County are united as one in this fight – a fight led by our State’s Attorney’s Office, our Sheriff’s Office, and the McHenry County Mental Health Board. For the third straight year, thanks to increased public education, increased treatment and more and more first responders receiving access to Narcan spray to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, the number of overdose deaths in McHenry County have plummeted. We went from 78 in 2017 to 51 in 2018. And in 2019, the number decreased to 37. That number is especially impressive when compared to our neighboring counties, where unfortunately, their death rates have increased. Thank you to Mr. Kenneally, Sheriff Prim, and Mental Health Board Executive Director Scott Block for leading the way.
A few minutes ago, I thanked several County Board members for putting principle before self. On that note, I would like to recognize Mr. Kenneally for filing a petition to vacate and expunge almost 1,900 misdemeanor cannabis convictions from the records of county residents. Our state’s attorney has made very clear his opposition to the legalization of recreational cannabis in Illinois, but he is a man of the law, and he not only followed the expungement law, but also followed it early. Thank you, Mr. Kenneally, for giving 1,900 low-level offenders a clean slate.
We’ve accomplished so much together in 2019, and we’ll do so again in 2020. Every year, we set an increasingly higher bar for ourselves, and then leap over it, exceeding our own lofty goals.
Our finances are looking great. Our capital plan for the next four years will be fully funded, and by executing our plan, in less than two years, McHenry County government will be totally debt-free. We will have no outstanding loans.
Three straight years of tax levy reduction, funding infrastructure improvements without borrowing, giving back $15 million in surplus funds back to our homeowners, expanding government services, and on track to be totally debt-free in less than two years. You ought to give yourselves a round of applause.
Believe it or not, it won’t be long until our talented county staff begins developing the 2021 budget and levy. Once again, we must work hard to find tax savings wherever possible, and we can’t give in to the siren song of raising taxes that lures so many of our other local governments, and is a major factor in driving the ongoing exodus of taxpayers and job creators from Illinois.
Some people have argued that we cannot reduce certain property tax levies because they are sacred cows that they can never be touched. This is the type of thinking that brought McHenry County’s residents and business owners one of the highest property-tax burdens in the nation, and resulted in obscenely inflated budget surpluses where millions of dollars of our taxpayers money sat and accrued, unneeded, unaccountable and unused.
The reality is that, over the past three years, we’ve proven the naysayers wrong. We’ve proven that we can reduce our levies and still fully fund our budgets and provide and expand the services our constituents expect. We must always remain vigilant against those who needlessly seek to raise taxes and fees on our citizens. We need to show the citizens of McHenry County that we get it – that we are fighting for them, that we value them, and that we want to give them a reason to stay. We will continue to work to make McHenry County the best place to live, work, and raise a family.
As you all know, 2020 is a decennial Census year, and the April 1 kickoff to count every American is fast approaching. Why am I bringing this up when I’m talking about the state of McHenry County? Simple. First, millions of dollars in state and federal funding is allocated based on our county’s population, and second, our population is the baseline for drawing the legislative boundaries for determining how we’re represented in Springfield and Washington. A less-than-complete count could result of a one-two punch of less funding, and fewer representatives in the General Assembly and Congress fighting for us. I want to thank the McHenry County Complete Count Committee, co-chair Michael Vijuk, and Assistant to the County Administrator Alicia Schueller, for all their hard work and public outreach to ensure that every McHenry County resident is counted. All of you can help their efforts by encouraging your constituents to answer the Census.
When it comes to moving reforms forward, we’re starting off the new year with a bang.
At a special Committee of the Whole next week, we will discuss resolutions eliminating health insurance for County Board members, and eliminating mileage reimbursement for County Board members to attend regularly scheduled meetings like this one. This isn’t just about saving the taxpayers $300,000 a year for health and dental insurance, or the $17,000 a year we budget for mileage reimbursement. This is about principle and fairness.
Our county Travel and Business Policy expressly forbids paying mileage reimbursement for any employee for commuting to and from work. This prohibition is not unique to us – no private sector job reimburses employees for commuting to work. We’ve been asking our county departments every year to cut costs, and now it’s our turn to follow suit. This is low-hanging fruit that, quite frankly, should have been plucked years ago. I want to thank Mr. Vijuk, Ms. Yensen and Ms. Wegener for leading the charge to begin the discussion on these issues.
This year also will be the year that we pass a comprehensive Ethics Ordinance that will ensure that McHenry County becomes a national model for good government. The ordinance undergoing final review, again, is an example of our forward thinking. Once approved by this County Board, it will allow us to help other local governments; if they are willing, they will be able to adopt it and use our Ethics Commission to hear cases.
With the 2020 Census will come redistricting and the 2022 election that will put the new federal, state and county legislative maps into effect. We have a unique opportunity to reshape the County Board to be more efficient, more transparent, and more responsive.
In 2018, we convened the Ad Hoc Committee on Governmental Consolidation to discuss reducing the size of the County Board, following a 2016 advisory referendum showing more than 80 percent support. Many of us wanted to halve the size of the County Board to 12 members, but a compromise was reached. We would reduce the size to 18 members - a 25 percent reduction.
With a new County Board elected since then, many have asked that we reduce the size of the board even more, and go to single-member districts to create direct accountability to our constituents. In the near future, we will be reconvening the ad-hoc committee to discuss not only further reducing the size of the County Board, but also going to single-member districts starting in 2022.
There has been some discussion of the idea of going to nonpartisan elections for the County Board - where, like most other local governments, we don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, but solely as engaged citizens who want to do our part in making McHenry County a better place. The partisan acrimony that is poisoning American politics has only gotten worse, and we have an obligation to restore civility and to rid local government of partisan politics. There is a place for partisan elections in state and federal offices, but it makes no sense at the local level, where we only deal with local issues.
More and more, partisanship brings out the worst in us. This isn’t going to get better unless we make it better. It’s time to ask the voters, who I’m pretty sure are just as sick and tired of the partisan anger around them, whether the County Board should be nonpartisan like their city councils, school boards, and other local governments.
McHenry County is blessed with intelligent and thoughtful voters. They wisely term limited the county board and the Chairman’s Office, which I’m sure you’re silently thankful for after sitting through this speech. The redundant and vestigial office of Recorder of Deeds will fade into history on Dec. 1, thanks to their good judgment. And this November, we’ll be asking them whether we should continue to elect the Coroner. Here in McHenry County, we empower our voters to choose the structure of their own government. That’s the way it should be. We need to put a referendum before them this November to decide whether the seats on the County Board should continue to be partisan elected offices, and I look forward to having this discussion with you.
While we’ve accomplished a lot together over the past three years, we must remain vigilant, always actively seeking ways to do things more efficiently and more transparently.
When it comes to finding good news about Illinois these days, reading the news can fill one with a sense of dread. Story after story has chronicled the flight of our best and brightest to neighboring states. Recently, we learned that Illinois lost more citizens over the past decade than any other state. And when you read a story about this County Board cutting spending and reducing our levy, you turn the page and read two stories about other local governments taxing to the max.
While we’re improving our Ethics Ordinance, we’re watching a new wave of Illinois elected officials getting indicted on corruption charges.
We sometimes have our differences, and there are meetings in which they are expressed more vocally than others, but as I've said before, I believe this county government is a beacon of hope. A beacon of good. We’ve become an example for other governments to follow. One of the reasons we’ve accomplished this is by staying in our lane and focusing on the things that affect our constituents. Our constituents elected us to the County Board to keep from getting taxed out of their homes. That’s the reason we’re here.
We’re getting results by working together. Every year, we make our county government smaller, more efficient, more transparent, and more responsive.
I look forward to working with all of you again in 2020 to exceed the high expectations we set for ourselves and to ensure that McHenry County is the best place in the nation to live, work, start a business and raise a family.