By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Effingham County Board on Monday approved a tax levy increase of 1.8 percent with a total of $4,196,350, which amounts to a 3.1 percent decrease from the first proposed levy on property taxes payable next year.
Supporters of the tax levy noted the increase of $75,000 will still produce a deficit budget, while opponents argued there were potential cuts in spending that would eliminate the need for asking county taxpayers for more money.
“It’s more palatable to the taxpayers if we cut some more from the budget,” said John Perry, a new county board member seated after the November election. Perry voted against the tax levy, along with fellow board member Lloyd Foster.
Last week, Perry and several residents proposed different cutbacks, ranging from dropping out of the Effingham County Economic Growth Alliance to cutting health insurance coverage options for county board members, that could save more than enough to make up for the $75,000 added to the County Health Department budget.
The Health Department is trying to enhance its services to qualify for state certification that would generate more state grants to the department. County tax revenues, even with the increase to a total of $190,000, will only fund a fraction of the $900,000 for that department. Grants and other revenue sources provide the rest of the Health Department funding.
Tax and Finance Committee Chairman Rob Arnold explained the county board must make the tough decisions on maintaining services without dipping into county savings, which now stand at $1.9 million. The county will be dipping into those savings to shore up fiscal shortfalls in coming months.
“It’s not an easy thing to look at,” Arnold said. “Even if we were to take the levy up to 4.99 percent, we still face a shortfall.”
The consensus of a majority of the board was for the tax levy with the lesser increase so Arnold and board members Dave Campbell, Joe Thoele, Doug McCain, Karen Luchtefeld and Jeff Simpson voted for the motion after a long discussion.
Perry tried to persuade other board members that proposed cuts were better than a tax increase, especially when some of the financial pressure for more money related to employee contracts or health insurance coverage, including options for county board members.
“We’re here to represent the taxpayers, not ourselves or the county employees. If we put this up to a public vote, this tax increase would not be passed,” Perry said.
Alan Shumaker, of Mason, urged the board to consider cutbacks instead of adding to the levy. He called for elimination of duplicate services by county departments and he quoted former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels on the philosophy of less is best in local government.
“Daniels once said, ‘You’d be amazed at how much government you can do without,’” Shumaker said.
Luchtefeld said the county has cut as much as it can without risking the quality of service from departments. She also noted the approved tax levy increase would add $5 more to the property tax bill next year for a house with a $100,000 market value. This is based on the $15 additional cost with the proposed 4.99 percent tax levy hike.
The debate is not yet over, even though the county board approved the levy – it was facing a Dec. 27 deadline to produce one to meet state law requirements. The board will hold a special meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 29 in the county board meeting room for making decisions on the 2016-17 County Budget.
In other business, the board approved the following appointments: Dave Campbell as Effingham County Emergency Telephone System Board representative for the county board to replace Mike Depoister, former board member; Jeff Fuesting, the new Effingham Police Chief or his designee, to fill the vacancy on the 911 board with Chief Mike Schutzbach’s retirement; John Perry to Community Development Committee, replacing Rob Arnold; and Waste Management Committee members, Brian Hayes, Kelsey Lock, Amber Willie and Bill Helving, pending his acceptance of the appointment. The new members respectively represent the local landfill, city of Effingham, County Health Department and community at large.
County Sheriff Dave Mahon also noted he is once again not participating in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund program through the county due to his state pension with the Illinois State Police. Mahon promised that he would not be involved in IMRF when he campaigned for sheriff. The savings is $14,741, Mahon said.