The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Change Makers: Modernizing County Government in Illinois interview series addresses challenges faced by county governments throughout the region. DuPage County’s groundbreaking ACT Initiative, a policy agenda that prioritizes accountability, consolidation, and transparency, serves as a model for Illinois communities. We are identifying the unique barriers that diverse localities are encountering in light of new reforms and efficiency measures.
McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks (D), was recently interviewed by the Metropolitan Planning Council. A former state legislator, Franks now oversees one of the most populous counties in Illinois and one which is home to over 130 units of government. McHenry is uniquely located approximately 45 minutes from both the O’Hare and Rockford airports and is about an hour from Chicago and Milwaukee. After long being the largest county without access to an interstate highway, it is in the process of acquiring a full interchange. The county has a highly educated workforce that is appealing to a variety of companies and creates a strong quality of life for residents.
Chairman Jack Franks of McHenry County
How have recent issues highlighting consolidation in your county, such as opposition from the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District, changed your strategy when it comes to effective government efforts?
Franks explained that this situation was a unique occurrence. Franks believes that while consolidation is good for taxpayers and is part of public policy, it was discovered that some of the smaller districts care more about their own self-preservation than about honest and open dialogue on whether consolidation makes sense. Under the consolidation law, Franks illustrated, a county board has the ability to abolish a unit of government if its boundaries lie completely within the county and if the board appoints a majority of trustees. The county board has to hold a hearing that concludes that the taxing body in question is unnecessary or provides duplicative services before the board can vote to eliminate it. There are procedural safeguards if there is public opposition to the consolidation, such as the residents of the taxing body having the option to gather signatures to force a referendum.
"[One] memo proposed buying a 30-acre parcel for almost $2,000,000 [in order to escape consolidation]... They didn’t need the new land whatsoever. They had no plans for it."
—Chairman Franks, about the Lake in the Hills sanitary district scandal
The Lake in the Hills Sanitary District, Franks explained, is a sanitary service area that serves an 11-square-mile zone and has a Board composed of only 3 Trustees. According to Franks, they conspired to stymy talk of consolidation by scrambling to buy a piece of land over the county line miles away from their service area by annexing a thin strip of right-of-way along the highway to connect it. If successful, it would have made the district immune from consolidation law. Franks stated that, upon filing discovery, the findings were shocking. “The memo from the district’s engineering firm actually suggested paying homeowners along the annexed strip of land up to $30,000 each just to join the district. Another memo proposed buying a 30-acre parcel for almost $2,000,000 and the memos show they didn’t need the new land whatsoever. They had no plans for it,” stated Franks.
It was a way to self-perpetuate so no one could look into them. They were so desperate, they were actually putting political mailers opposing any consolidation talk with the monthly sewer bills. I just want to point out, Franks said, what we’re up against even though we have the law on our side. A lot of public officials were more intent on keeping their own fiefdom going than worrying about what’s best for the taxpayers.
Can you provide specific examples of consolidation accomplishments or other areas of reform you are working toward?
Franks stated the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District situation will turn out positive, especially now the county board will have a chance to look at it, and because the County was successful with the lawsuit they filed. Franks has maintained robust communication with other regional county chairmen such as Aaron Lawlor of Lake County, Dan Cronin of DuPage, Frank Haney of Winnebago and more recent conversations with Boone County. Service-sharing is a possibility with all of these partners. In particular, Franks is considering the possibility of sharing one coroner between McHenry and Lake Counties. Additionally, he is considering the consolidation of the fire districts currently serving Richmond, Spring Grove and Wonder Lake as the villages are contiguous and all three have separate chiefs who are near retirement. Franks explained that they are assessing the tax rates, assets, and liabilities to understand how feasible such a move would be. According to Franks, “the solution has to start at the bottom, at the grassroots level. This can’t be from on high, from Springfield. The locals have to do this.”
What type of feedback have you received from constituents on these ideas?
“Everyone is for it,” stated Franks, adding that one of the biggest problems facing citizens are property taxes. “We have among the highest property taxes in the country,” said Franks, “and a reason for that is that we have the most units of government in the country.” Franks believes that “business as usual” has to change and that we have to look at shared services, consolidation, and ways to deliver services more cost-efficiently and effectively.
How do you balance priorities such as cost-efficiency or service delivery when making decision?
“I don’t think they are mutually exclusive; I don’t think that because you consolidate or cooperate, you have to give up on services,” stated Franks. In his point of view, services do not need to suffer because of consolidation, especially if the process is thought-out and done right. Furthermore, Franks believes cooperation is a more comprehensive concept to follow. “We simply need to deliver these services. I’m not asking to cut services, I’m just asking they be delivered more efficiently,” Franks explained.
Can you describe the units of government you appoint the boards of?
Sanitary districts are among those units of government with boards appointed by Franks. Others are smaller, like drainage districts, which Franks does not believe are worth consolidating. “No one is going to know those drain tiles better than the local farmers who sit on those districts.” Franks believes that the act of consolidating must be strategic and relevant. “If we’re going to do consolidation, it has to make sense for everybody,” he said.
Here at MPC, we work on a range of areas that address issues around infrastructure, transportation, and equity, among others. How do you see McHenry’s efforts on consolidation fitting into these areas?
“I think we will all continue to work together because government and service delivery are changing, especially with the advent of technology. People do not necessarily want to come in to the County building to do their business." —Chairman Jack Franks
Franks explained that this work does not stop at the county lines and must be regional in order to be successful. For example, Franks’ conversations with other Chairmen have included strategies on how to lure Amazon to the region. As Franks explained, it is a quality-of-life issue for everyone because if good jobs come, it helps the entire region and it lowers property taxes.
Furthermore, Franks is exploring transportation service-sharing with Boone County, as the Eastern part of Boone County and the Western part of McHenry are both very rural and underserved. Franks affirmed these efforts by stating. “I think we will all continue to work together because government and service delivery are changing, especially with the advent of technology. People do not necessarily want to come in to the County building to do their business and would rather do it online.”
In moving forward with these endeavors, Franks is open to engaging with diverse partners to spearhead innovative government practices in McHenry County. Such cooperation is a key component of creating a more effective government throughout the region. This approach reflects the values of both the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Effective Government project area and the Transform Illinois coalition.