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Central Illinois County Clerks Raise Concerns Over Housing Grants As Legislature Considers Fee Increase

McLean County Government Center
Ralph Weisheit
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, whose office is based in the McLean County Government Center, says it needs to be clear where the fees collected from taxpayers are going, especially if the legislature wants to double a fee paid on deeds and other real estate documents.

A group of 10 Central Illinois county clerks says they're against a proposal to raise a fee that funds housing authority grants because of discrepancies in data reporting and unequal distribution of grants across the state.

The $9 is collected on real estate documents (such as deeds) that county clerks record. The proposal currently in the Illinois Senate would raise that to $18. It would also create a task force to review how the money from the fee is used.

Clerks announcing their disapproval in a statement last week included Peoria County Clerk Rachael Parker, Logan County Clerk Theresa Moore, and Mason County Clerk Summer Brown.

"Our research found this grant revenue rarely leaves the Chicago Metro Area and not all the expenses could be accounted for, leaving many of us wondering just where is all this already existing revenue going?" the statement read in part.

Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, who's spearheading the collective effort against the bill, said the county hasn't received any grants in the last decade despite almost $1 million in fees in the county in recent years. Ackerman also said the Illinois Housing Development Authority isn't correctly accounting for the funds it's getting from downstate counties, with the numbers from the clerks themselves varying significantly from what IHDA has reported.

"There's a lot of alarms that are going off with the current system," said Ackerman. "Now this proposed legislation wants to double it."

In a report released earlier in May, an audit of the IHDA found inaccurate financial reporting has been a "material weakness" for the agency since 2015. In responses within the report, the agency acknowledged it "was unable to implement sufficiently the changes to eliminate human errors and to overcome the manual process of the preparation of the financial statements," and that it is making multiple changes to its internal policies and procedures.

Ackerman said it's still not the time to raise fees.

"It's putting the cart before the horse," said Ackerman. "You should resolve the problems that we currently have identified that we currently have, and then justify why a need to double the amount of revenue is required."

Ackerman said the task force in itself is not a bad idea. But he said he'd rather see the task force begin work before a fee increase is put into place, because he said the many questions revolving around the fee and the grants it funds need to be answered.

"That task force that they're going to form needs to be a true task force that actually does something, that has the right individuals on there," said Ackerman.

He suggested state Sens. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, and Sally Turner, R-Beason, as potential choices. Turner formerly served as Logan County clerk.

"Individuals like that that can actually, that understand that they're not just taking, filling a seat, but they actually have experience in seeing that that kind of program is operating properly," said Ackerman.

Ackerman emphasized the movement against the bill is bipartisan.

"This isn't a partisan issue in any way," said Ackerman. "This is us taking a look at this and going 'there's a problem here,' being united and trying to fix what issues we're seeing."

McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael echoed many of Ackerman's sentiments. She said it needs to be clear where the fees collected from taxpayers are going, especially if the legislature wants to double future fees.

"We're not suggesting there's any, you know, any wrongdoing," said Michael. "But we find these discrepancies in the numbers that we all think should be clarified."

The IHDA reported an average of $16,536 collected each year from McLean County. But according to Michael's data, the total in fees from 2014 to 2016 was $588,123.

Michael said she wants to see accountability on the IHDA's part for the numbers it's given in its reporting.

"I don't want to accuse them of not giving a clear picture, maybe I'm missing something," said Michael. "I think we should get some answers, though, very shortly, or to me that spells concern."

Michael also said McLean County doesn't see the fees it sends to the state come back to the area. She said that needs to change so the grants help the area's citizens.

According to the IHDA, around 70% of the grant fees collected throughout the state end up going to programs in the Chicagoland area.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority has not responded to a request for comment.

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Updated: May 12, 2021 at 10:29 AM CDT
This story has been updated from its original version with new information about an Auditor General report on the state of the Illinois Housing Development Authority.
Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.