Dollars and census: Sauk Valley counties, like others across Illinois, are paying the price of a state that can’t keep residents from leaving

May 5, 2019

All counties in the Sauk Valley region saw a drop in population in the past 8 years, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Whiteside County had the biggest loss, dropping by 2,852 residents between 2010 and 2018, or nearly 5 percent of the population.

Ogle County saw a drop of 2,500 people, Bureau County fell by 1,966, Lee County lost 1,753, and Carroll County decreased by 1,080 people.

Illinois has lost nearly 100,000 residents overall between July 2010 and July 2018.

As people leave, so do the property, income and sales taxes they generate, putting a greater burden on the residents who remain.

Although some areas have gained population, the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area – comprised of Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties – has experienced overall population decline since July 2014, according to census estimates. Statewide population totals also have been on the decline since July 2013.

Residents see one factor stimulating this exodus is the state’s high property tax burden.

Diane Seymour of McHenry said that 2 years ago, she was living in a home with a property tax bill of $15,000.

She and her husband, Gary, then moved to their current home, where they pay approximately $7,000 in property taxes, so they could stay local and care for her elderly mother.

But following her mother’s death, Seymour said she and Gary will be moving to Florida and will close on a house similar in size to her McHenry home in June.

The property tax bill for that home: about $2,400.

Shawn Strach of Dream Real Estate, who is handling the sale of the Seymour’s home, said taxes are always the No. 1 issue for people leaving the state, especially for those entering retirement.

“When you look at that number of $15,000 to $2,400, you’re talking about a monumental amount of money to be freed up for that family,” Strach said.

Another homeowner Strach worked with who lived in Marengo but worked in Chicago moved to Indiana and is now paying $1,500 in property taxes instead of $6,500 while still making the same commute to work.

Of the 53 families his Realty company worked with last year, Strach said nine moved out of state.

Seymour said a secondary reason for moving was the Northern Illinois weather. Strach said this is also a common factor for moving, especially following the state’s record winter, which saw snowfall in April and the wind chill drop to 50 below zero in January.

“We’re still getting snow in April,” Seymour said. “Down there, it’s in the 80s. It was in the 80s in February, so there are a lot more days to be outside and active.”

But Kent Redfield, professor emertius of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said there is much more contributing to population decline than just taxes and weather, such as poor public policy.

Although a number of proposals from Gov. J.B Pritzker have been advertised to help spur economic growth – such as a graduated income tax and the legalization of recreational marijuana – Redfield said there is no magic bullet for reversing declining population trends.

“The state has not done a really good job of providing support for things communities need to make themselves attractive, not only in competing with other communities but from a state perspective,” Redfield said.

Redfield said he would put property taxes and school funding on the top of the list of public policy issues the state has the capacity to change.

Illinois revamped its school funding formula in 2017, but K-12 schools in many districts are still not receiving enough money to hit student adequacy targets, or the total resources needed to support the best practices for students to succeed.

Redfield said that unlike rural areas downstate – which have faced job losses in mining and agriculture – McHenry County is in an area that has seen a lot of suburban growth and development, but the pressures of water, roads and other infrastructure can set limitations on growth.

Economic shifts into high tech, service-based industries also can compel people and businesses to leave an area, but Redfield said the things that made northeastern Illinois attractive 200 years ago, such as access to shipping and railways, are still there.

“The trick is how you look at what the advantages are and what you can use to sell your county or area,” Redfield said.

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Population change from 2010 to 2018

Lee County  lost 1,753 people, or 4.9 % – 36,031 to 34,223

Whiteside County lost 2,852 people, or 4.9 % – 58,498 to 55,626

Ogle County lost 2,500 people, or 4.7 % – 53,497 to 50,923

Carroll County lost 1,080 people or 7 % – 15,387 to 14,312

Bureau County lost 1,966 or 5.6 % – 34,978 to 32,993

*Source: U.S. Census Bureau