A grassroots petition that Madison County taxpayers began circulating earlier this week seeks to give voters a say on permanently reducing the maximum property tax rate.
Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, a Republican running for County Board Chairman in November, is heading up the effort.
“Every year, the county board pads the budget," he said. "Padding the budget has produced a three to four million dollar surplus. We don’t think it’s right that the county is levying taxes that we don’t need. This isn’t a freeze. We want a permanent reduction.”
Roughly 17,000 signatures will be needed to put the question to voters in November.
The referendum question asks, "Shall the maximum tax rate for general county purposes of Madison County, Illinois, be established at 0.20 percent of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein instead of 0.25 percent, the maximum rate otherwise applicable to the next taxes to be extended?"
In 2015, the county taxed property owners slightly below the maximum at 0.23 percent, according to Prenzler, At the current maximum property tax rate, the county would generate $11.6 million, he said.
If the referendum were to be approved, $9.3 million would be the maximum amount raised for the county’s coffer based on current data. As a result, the highest tax allowable on a single family home valued at $100,000 would drop from $83.33 to $66.67, according to the petition.
Prenzler said his involvement in the petition initiative is not a "publicity stunt." He said he is participating in a taxpayer-driven effort to rein in government.
“When I became treasurer in 2010, we had $108 million dollars in the general fund," he said. "Today its $147 million. The county doesn’t have any debt. Every year the board shovels the surplus to its capital projects fund and it sits there. The board hasn’t decided what to do with the millions it already has collected. I think the board has a moral duty to be good stewards, which means don’t take more than is needed.”
According to Prenzler, the high tax rate is partly responsible for Madison County’s declining population. Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March indicated 5,983 residents have moved out of Madison County since 2010.
The county's strategy should be to lower property taxes in order to keep people from leaving rather than to build up a huge rainy-day fund before they go, Prenzler said. He added that changing the rate permanently would be more effective than attempting to lobby the county for property tax relief.
“I don’t think the county board is sensitive to taxpayers," he said. "With a permanent reduction, the maximum allowable tax rate won’t depend on any elected official."
Prenzler is optimistic about the potential of gathering 17,000 signatures, which would need to be submitted six months prior to the election. In 2013, county residents successfully gathered 23,000 signatures to force a referendum on the county board’s plan to raise taxes to fund bonds for jail renovations.
“It wasn’t that citizens were opposed to the renovations. The issue was that if we were going to spend $18 million, then the taxpayers had a right to vote on it.” Prenzler said. “We were able to get the referendum before, and we’re trying to do it again.