MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — Board members in Piatt County came to a Wednesday morning meeting prepared to raise taxes by 9.4 percent, but were stopped short after a mid-meeting announcement from the state’s attorney that what they were doing skirted the line of legality.
After an 8:30 a.m. Truth in Taxation hearing, board members were set to vote on the proposed increase, as well as a final version of the county’s budget that was still more than $375,000 in the red.
But just before the vote, state’s attorney Dana Rhoades told board members it wouldn’t be legal for them to up the tax levy without first adopting a budget — on Wednesday’s agenda, members arranged to vote first on the levy, then on the budget.
Board members decided to do neither, and tabled both scheduled votes.
As of Wednesday, there are 18 days before the county’s fiscal year begins on December 1, meaning board members have 18 days to decide whether to approve the proposed tax levy, as well as the county’s overall budget.
Despite officials noting that the 9.6 percent increase would translate into a $33 increase for a home valued at $100,000, public comment at Wednesday’s meeting was largely opposed to the move.
“Some folks in our township are barely hanging on,” said Kathleen Piatt. “I think that needs to be accounted for.”
Added Jake Lieb: “I don’t think it’s fair to put it all on taxpayers — to fill that hole with just taxing. I’m in favor of across-the-board cuts to balance the budget.”
Evan Smith called on board members to “vote no” on the proposed levy, noting a lack of transparency regarding the Truth in Taxation hearing and county board meetings in general: Board members ran a public hearing notice in the November 6 edition of the Piatt County Journal Republican, listing the courthouse as the location, but later decided to move it to the Monticello Community Building.
And aside from an agenda listing general items, board packets were not presented at either of Wednesday’s meetings — or at the finance meetings before them.
Rhoades told board members that due to a lack of communication from chair Ray Spencer, she’d learned of the hearing “on Facebook.”
“This really isn’t a public hearing,” Smith said, adding that he was likely one of a limited number of residents able to attend the morning meeting because a coworker had agreed to cover for him.
And because public comment during regular board meetings is relegated to the end, some people spoke during the hearing about their confusion regarding the budget, noting that it had not been made accessible online during the more-than-a-month-long set of finance meetings.
Spencer told the audience the board had previously “talked about it.”
If the budget is approved in its current form, the county’s fiscal year will begin with more than a $375,000 deficit — although board members noted that figure is an improvement from the original projection of a more than $700,000 deficit.
Initially, board member Dale Lattz proposed cuts of 15 percent to each county department, but board members landed on 9 percent as the amount they’d request department heads to slash.
Not all departments met that target, with some saying that services would suffer too greatly without funding.
On Wednesday, Lattz told the audience that departments with union contracts had salary lines that can’t be cut and “other departments” had operating budgets that had already been cut the year before.
That includes six circuit clerk operators, whose contract — approved in August — guarantees a pay increase of 3 percent for the upcoming fiscal year — or $991.46 on December 1.
As it stands, the state’s attorney’s office is one of two departments targeted the most — after a meeting last week, cuts to that office were raised to 38 percent by Spencer and approved by the full board. Rhoades said that to help board members attempt to balance the budget, she and assistant state’s attorney Elizabeth Dobson had agreed to donate portions of their salary.
“Despite these additional cuts by my office, the Piatt County Board decided to axe the State’s Attorney’s Office by a total of 38 percent, including the loss of two, full-time positions (one being the full-time drug prosecutor),” Rhoades said in a statement. “Some non-public safety departments did not even make the 9 percent threshold. After these cuts… the county board still has a huge deficit.”
Board members also last week approved additional cuts to the county’s Emergency Management Agency, deciding to return the department back to a part-time status after Spencer said the department needed to be full-time in order to “modernize” and “professionalize” it.
On Wednesday, Dobson told the audience that she had spent six months working to support the EMA per Spencer’s direction, only to see its operations switched from full- to part-time just before the county faces a recertification process dependent upon the agency meeting state standards.
“When looking back on all the work I’ve done over the past six months, it’s been an utter and complete waste of my time and your money,” Dobson said.
It’s possible the budget could change between now and the next county board meeting — a date for which hasn’t been set — as board member Randy Shumard said he favored “revisit(ing)” the state’s attorney’s budget.
Spencer did not respond to a WCIA email requesting a statement and when reached by phone, said he was “too busy to talk” about budget-related questions.