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Forest Preserve bond issue all about 'bear' essentials?

Monday, October 04, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
Editorial

The good news is that a $100 million bond issue for improvements in the Forest Preserve District, the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden is up for a vote in the district's board this week. The bad news, and a major concern to those who have winced at the district's injurious mismanagement and misspending, is the lack of specifics in how that money is to be spent and the bonds paid for.

In the words of Charles Schwartz, past chairman of the board of Friends of the Parks, "The proposed use of funds from the forthcoming bond issue is so general that it resembles a bear reaching into the honey pot." Or, perhaps, a grizzly with an insatiable taste for pork. Having seen the Forest Preserve waste gobs of money on perks and patronage while the lands and its facilities have fallen into shocking disrepair, are we to accept vague entries such as "up to 50 washrooms may be rebuilt" and "new boathouse at Busse Woods" at face value?

If lack of detail is a problem, the question of how the bonds will be paid for is equally vexing. Last week, Cook County Board President John Stroger did not have concrete answers for these questions. He said it's possible the budget could be reduced enough so that the bonds can be funded without an increase in property taxes. But as our Steve Patterson reported, taxpayers should brace for an increase in taxes. Still, that budget deserves a close look before taxes are hiked.

Another concern involves the issue of land acquisition. The county and especially the city are in dramatic need of open space -- for recreation, for flood protection by absorbing rainfall, for the preservation of thousands of species. In its 2000 land acquisition plan, favoring the expansion of open space (and recognizing that land was being acquired at a slower rate than during the Depression and world wars), the Forest Preserve identified more than 40,000 acres as potentially suitable. Now, while various individuals and groups have been allowed to encroach on lands that were supposed to be protected from such incursions -- a trend that led to recently adopted amendments to the Land Policy -- it envisions no acquisitions.

What makes this especially painful is that the district raided its land acquisitions fund to the tune of $19 million to make up for budget shortfalls. That money should be returned to its original purpose. District regulars, referring to attorneys, say the language of the statute enabling the bond issue doesn't allow use of the money for land acquisitions. Commissioners Mike Quigley (who is pushing for the district to expand from its current 68,000 acres to 75,000) and Larry Suffredin are among those who strongly disagree. That things have come to this apparent impasse is a sad commentary on the priorities of this board. Whatever it takes to do so, it must ensure future generations of people and other living things the open spaces they need to thrive and develop. Squandering our natural resources is a terrible crime.

 


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