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Forest preserve board signs off on tax hike

Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Despite eight hours of wrangling over the details, Cook County Forest Preserve commissioners Tuesday passed President John Stroger's budget essentially unchanged, guaranteeing a 13 percent tax increase next year for property owners.

Still left to decide is the actual county budget, which faces much stiffer opposition.

The increase amounts to about $3 more a year on a $200,000 home, Stroger's staff said. One commissioner - Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat - called that estimate too low and pegged the hike at about $4.

Time after time Tuesday, Stroger and commissioners loyal to him fended off amendments that would have changed or scaled back his budget.

Two separate amendments that provoked heavy debate were ones put forward by commissioners Mike Quigley and Forrest Claypool, both Chicago Democrats. Quigley's sought to eliminate regional supervisors, while Claypool's sought to reduce them. Both men contend that, at less than five workers per supervisor, the forest preserve needs more workers and fewer supervisors.

"This organizational structure is definitely top-heavy. It makes Dolly Parton look flat," said Liz Gorman, an Orland Park Republican who represents parts of Des Plaines. But Gorman ultimately voted against the amendments, arguing that Superintendent Steve Bylina has made good progress at reducing waste in the forest preserves in his one year in office and should be allowed to continue that trend before the board steps in.

Bylina's leadership similarly placated several other commissioners and community groups like Friends of the Park. The group, which typically excoriates the district, this year voiced support for it under Bylina. One of his acomplishments was turning in a balanced budget that did not need a bailout from the county - a first in several years.

But Quigley said commissioners shouldn't be satisfied with the new improvements when they could spur further change.

"You're like characters out of a Dickens novel who are scared to say 'more,' " Quigley told commissioners.

Much of the new taxes go to cover a $100 million bond issuance that the board approved earlier after the legislature approved a one-time lifting of tax caps for certain forest preserve and park districts late last year.

Because that debt was taken on earlier by the district, approving the tax increase Tuesday was largely academic. The forest preserves would have faced a huge financial crisis and bond ratings disaster had they issued the bonds but then not paid for them.

Although four commissioners voted against Stroger's budget Tuesday, only three -Quigley, Claypool and Gorman - voted against the bond issuance Oct. 6. Commissioner Tony Peraica of Riverside voted for the bond issuance, but against Tuesday's budget.

One of the few amendments that passed Tuesday was one put forth by Republican Carl Hansen of Mount Prospect to divert $10,000 to study replacing now-closed toboggan slides with earthen hills. The move, Hansen said, would restore sledding to the preserves but eliminate the liability, supervision and cost needed for toboggans.

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