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Cook forest district OKs $162M budget

Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

With far less debate than usual among its fractious members, the Cook County Forest Preserve District board Tuesday approved a $162 million budget.

The budget was warmly received by watchdog and conservation organizations that have sharply criticized district management in the past. The budget, approved on a 12-to-4 vote, increases the property tax levy by 8.5 percent, or $6.4 million.

It will mean an average tax increase of about $2.74 for a home worth $200,000.

Half of the tax increase goes to funding operations, while the other half goes to paying back last year's $50 million bond sale for districtwide renovations.

Those supporting the budget said Supt. Steven Bylina has done a good job of retooling the district to focus on service and reigning in out-of-control costs.

"Twelve years ago, we were drowning in red ink," finance committee chairwoman Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago) said. "This year, we have a fund balance."

The four "no" votes came from three commissioners gunning for county board President John Stroger's job, as well as Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park).

"We could have sustained this (spending on capital improvements) without a tax increase," Gorman said. "We could have whittled at costs."

Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside), another of the "no" votes, proposed two amendments to the budget, which both failed. One would have removed a much-criticized administrative position given to Palos Township Democratic Committeeman Sam Simone last year.

"This post was added and filled on the basis of political affiliation and is not needed," Peraica said.

Bylina defended Simone's work, saying he works as a fill-in district superintendent wherever one is needed, as well as overseeing the district's overhaul of policy regarding homes on district property

Peraica's other suggestion — to merge forest preserve police with sheriff's police — was rejected by board members who said the sheriff would demand more officers if given added duties. Because sheriff's police make more than district police, they said, there would be no cost savings.

The budget cuts seven positions, including two top-level administrators, and adds 18 new ones, mostly for conservation specialists and for clerks who will free up front-line maintenance staff for field work.

Also included in the budget is $1 million for more land acquisition and money for metal bins in picnic areas to dump hot charcoal from barbecue grills.

No money is allocated to fix the popular but broken-down toboggan slides at Swallow Cliff, but a plan to privatize and repair the slides is before committee.

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