How shock at McHenry County tax bills is fueling a revolution
Frustration over high taxes and government waste in Illinois need more than an angry social media post or a moving van. Some residents of McHenry County, Illinois, acted, and are winning reforms.
Joe Tirio and his wife, Karen, run an in-home senior care service in McHenry County, one of the most overtaxed counties in one of the most overtaxed states in the nation.
He wasn’t planning to become a politician, but politics found the Woodstock native. He recalls helping an elderly woman who just moved to the state.
“She got her tax bill and she asked me to come over and look at it because she didn’t think she was looking at it right,” Tirio said. “She says it looks like it says $7,900 for her 1,300-square-foot townhome. She said, ‘That 7 is a 1, right? It should be $1,900?’ I said ‘nope.’ She almost fell over.”
Experiences like that – along with witnessing corrupt, wasteful local government – led him to become McHenry County Recorder of Deeds, with the intention of killing the superfluous political job. His effort succeeded, and the recorder position will vanish Dec. 1, 2020. It will save Tirio’s neighbors a little on their property tax bills.
“Is it going to change the way you live? Probably not,” Tirio said. “But is it a step in the right direction, and should we overlook $100,000 in salary and benefits and pensioners that could be on the rolls at any time?”
“We didn’t just eliminate the recorder’s position. We eliminated every politician that was salivating to get into the office.”
Tirio in November comfortably won election as county clerk. He can’t eliminate that office because of its statutory tie to the county’s existence, but he can clean up waste and patronage driving up that elderly woman’s property taxes.
“When I think about the people in this county, that’s the face that I see.”
Property tax revolt
Another property tax bill created another McHenry County rebel.
McHenry resident Dan Aylward in 2016 was outraged by the county’s high property taxes. He handed the treasurer’s office $5,734.18 in singles and change for his property tax bill. He wanted to make a point.
“I will do this every year until my last breath,” he told the Northwest Herald at the time. “[Raising property taxes] is wrong, it’s evil, and it’s gotta stop.”
Homeowners in Chicago’s collar counties paid among the highest property taxes in Illinois and the nation in 2017. McHenry County residents paid an average effective rate of 2.82 percent – more than double the national average. The median McHenry County property tax bill was $6,383 for a single-family home – $1,442 more than the Illinois average.
Aylward teamed up with Tirio, Wonder Lake barber Bob Anderson and other McHenry County activists to form the Illinois Tax Revolution. They encourage others to follow Aylward’s property tax protest. Separately, Joe and Karen Tirio were active in several grassroots campaigns against corruption and local waste, founding and leading the group “Voters in Action,” which focuses on increasing public awareness and making it easier for citizens to act.
The grassroots’ revolution first turned into results at the ballot box in 2017. Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Bob Miller’s half century of rule ended amid increased scrutiny of his record of patronage and waste. For decades Miller won easy election and used taxpayer money on frivolous personal items – such as Disneyland tickets, liquor and women’s clothing – and hired members of his family to high-priced township positions.
“What do these people make? [Township officials] up here in McHenry, Nunda, Grafton townships… you have people making upwards of $100,000. To me these would be clerical positions,” said Jamie Grubich, McHenry resident and township consolidation advocate. “There needs to be me and 50,000 other people in Illinois saying the same thing.”
Anderson in 2017 led a slate of candidates to win township board seats on the platform of abolishing the McHenry Township Road District and combining its services with the rest of the township. The road district had its own share of patronage and waste.
McHenry Township Road Commissioner Jim Condon hired the son of Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance to an unlisted position. Soon after voters ousted Miller, Condon handed him a $40-per-hour consultant position. When Anderson and the other reformers on the township board asked Condon about the hires, he replied, “Do you have a problem with that?”
McHenry County has 17 townships, local layers of government valued in the 1800s but that now are often redundant and too often corrupt. Nunda, Algonquin and nearby Grafton townships have all faced criminal investigations. The McHenry County state’s attorney in March wrote in a report that the township form of government is full of “incompetence, guile and impropriety.” He didn’t have enough evidence to bring criminal charges, but recommended township consolidation to fix the deep flaws.
Anderson got a referendum on the ballot in November to kill the McHenry Township Road District, but his effort was outspent and came up short.
“We found out when government is established, how difficult it is to remove it,” Anderson told supporters on election night.
But the insurgents have new hope. House Bill 4637 is on the governor’s desk. If signed, it would make it much easier for residents to abolish townships in McHenry County. Instead of gathering petition signatures from 10 percent of the voters in each of the county’s 17 townships just to eliminate one township, residents would only need 5 percent of the voters’ signatures and only from the targeted township to force a consolidation vote.
“The people who say you can’t fight city hall are the people in city hall,” Tirio said. “Because they don’t want you fighting. The fact is it doesn’t take that much effort to really fight city hall. There are more people like you than you know until you get out there and you get to know them. And before you know it, the numbers just multiply.”
Stay or go
Fed-up taxpayers can complain, they can revolt, or they can head for the exits.
Between 2010 and 2017, McHenry County – like the counties around it and the state at large – has seen serious domestic net outmigration. In that time frame, the county lost more than 11,000 residents on net to other areas. New U.S. Census estimates show Illinois again lost population in 2018, the fifth straight year and at the rate of a plane full of people leaving every day for another state.
There is little doubt the exodus is driven by the intense tax burden. Residents told pollsters that taxes are their No. 1 reason for wanting to leave.
“It makes me sad to think there’s a possibility that I might not want to live here,” said Grubich, who for now is staying and aiding the local policy revolution. “I liked having my roots in one spot. I like being able to give my kids that feeling of being comfortable in one spot. We have a solid 8-10 years to really want to remain here for those reasons.”
While he understands why people are heading for the exits, Tirio said it’s worth staying and fighting for reform.
“Illinois is a great state,” Tirio said. “The natural gifts that we have – the great land, the access to water, it’s a beautiful place, we have a world class city and it’s centrally located. All that stuff. People should be leaving the desert to come here.”
“We aren’t ready to leave without a fight. We aren’t about to let a bunch of blankety blank politicians steal our state, steal our home, without a good fight.”