Vermilion County Board considers hiking property taxes

Vermilion County Board considers hiking property taxes

DANVILLE — For the first time in six years, the Vermilion County Board is thinking about raising property taxes.

Proponents say it's only a slight increase, and it's necessary to rebuild dwindling fund balances and keep the county fiscally sound. Opponents say that it would be a burden on property taxpayers who may also endure increases next year from other property taxing bodies, such as school districts.

Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard, R-District 1, said he believes he has the votes to pass the tax increase at Tuesday night's board meeting, but he knows there are some board members either against the increase or undecided. It takes a simple majority — 14 of the 27 members — to pass the property tax levy and the budget.

Weinard, who is the first Republican county board chairman in at least 20 years, said there may be some party politics being played as the vote approaches. Republicans have only a one-member majority of 14 on the 27-member board.

Board member Mike Dodge, D-District 7, said he's still leery of a tax increase. He said the Danville school district is considering a property tax increase and other taxing bodies, too, so property owners are getting hit for multiple increases.

Board Member Jim McMahon, D-District 9, said going to taxpayers for more money should be the county's last resort. McMahon was board chairman the six years prior to Weinard and proposed slight decreases in the property tax levy each year of his chairmanship. McMahon said he will attend Tuesday's meeting with an open mind and listen to Weinard and the finance committee explain why they believe an increase is in the county's best interest. He said if they can justify it, it will pass. If not, there's a good chance it won't.

According to board member and county finance committee Chairman John Alexander, R-District 6, and board member John Dreher, D-District 7, fund balances and reserves are "dangerously low" after six years of holding the line hoping that the economy would rebound after the housing crash in 2008. They said the county needs to strengthen its reserves with this "small 3.6 percent increase."

They said in the past the county has waited too long to act in similar situations and had to seek a double digit tax increase. By acting prudently now, they said, with a small increase, the county hopes to avoid a large increase in the future.

County board members will be voting on an $11.99 million property tax levy Tuesday with the board meets at 6 p.m. in the Vermilion County Courthouse Annex, 6 N. Vermilion St., Danville.

That's an increase of $499,902, or 3.6 percent, over last year's levy.

Weinard said about $150 of a $1,000 total tax bill goes to the county, and a 3.6 percent increase in the county portion means that taxpayer would pay an additional $5.40. If the total tax bill were $5,000, he said, it would mean an additional $28, and a taxpayer with a total tax bill of $10,000 would pay an additional $56.

Weinard said the increase is necessary, because the county cannot continue to spend without replenishing funds. And this slight tax increase would not build surpluses but would only halt the draw down of balances.

Since 2007, the general fund balance has dropped from $9 million to less than $5.5 million. The fund that pays for county law enforcement, including the jail and juvenile detention center, has dropped from a balance of more than $7 million in 2009 to about $4.5 million. Nikki Bogart, the county's finance officer, said it takes $7.1 million a year to operate the county jail and juvenile detention center. Weinard said the draw down of fund balances "is just not a practical way to move forward at this point."

Weinard and Bogart said all of the $499,902 increase in the levy will go toward the cost of operating the juvenile detention center and county jail. The county made the decision two years ago, Weinard said, to keep the juvenile detention center open although the state was no longer going to pay as much as it had been toward salaries. That shift in financial burden is part of the reason for the increased levy, he said.

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