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Voters to decide property tax referendum for DeKalb County health services

SYCAMORE – It will be up to voters to decide if they want to pay more in property taxes to fund public health services in DeKalb County.

The DeKalb County Board approved a measure to put the property tax referendum on the April 4 ballot.

The proposed referendum would bring in about $500,000 a year through a property tax of $9.57 per $100,000 of equalized assessed value, officials have said. That means the owner of a $150,000 home would pay about $15 more each year to the county to fund public health services.

Some board members didn’t want the measure to be put on the ballot. That group included County Board Vice Chairman Tracy Jones, R-District 1.

“I’d just like to say that I don’t think there’s really any doubt that the need is there,” he said. “... I’m just not in favor of another tax increase.”

Jones also said he felt that if the board put the referendum on the ballot it would appear to voters that the board supported it.

Others disagreed. In response to concerns that putting the measure on the ballot was akin to the board endorsing a tax increase, Paul Stoddard, D-District 9, said he has faith in local residents to “vote their conscience” without being swayed by what the board does.

“I seriously doubt we have that much ability, the 24 of us, to tell the citizens of the county how to vote or what to think,” he said. “I trust them to make that decision.”

John Gudmunson, R-District 11, said he didn’t think the public has “the stomach” for another property tax.

Ultimately, the board voted, 18-6, to put approve putting the question to voters.

The DeKalb County Health Department has been using reserve funds for the past three years to cover operating costs to maintain existing services. That practice could only continue for a few more years before the reserves are depleted and the department would either need to find more revenue or cut services.

At the request of the board, Public Health Administrator Lisa Gonzalez detailed some of the recent cuts in the department at Wednesday’s meeting. 

In December 2010, the department laid off 10 permanent and 10 part-time, temporary employees. Another position went unfilled after a resignation. In December 2012, the department divested its Home Care program, laying off 16 permanent employees, Gonzalez said. 

“In addition to layoffs, we’ve restructured and restructured and restructured again and not replaced positions through attrition,” she said. “From 2012 to 2015, we’ve reduced the health department workforce by 24 percent. In addition to getting very lean with our staffing, we’ve worked very hard to compensate for the loss in revenue as our continuous grants and property tax revenue has decreased.” 

That has included incrementally increasing fees and getting some short-term state grants and local foundation grants, Gonzalez said.   “Because they’ve done all the restructuring before my tenure at the health department, really they’ve gotten a lean enough staff that it would be difficult to cut further and still meet deliverables of the programs.” 

The money is needed to keep the health department from having to cut services such as maternal and child health programs. Grants for such programs have been declining in recent years. The programs provide services for pregnant women, infants and young children.

The department does everything from wellness screenings and flu shots to animal control and restaurant inspections. It also maintains vital records, including issuance of birth and death certificates, among other functions.

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