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Veto Imperils Local Treasures

Friday, September 26, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times
Letter to the Editor

The Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo appreciate the support of the Chicago Sun-Times for additional capital dollars to address long-deferred and greatly needed maintenance and repair projects at our institutions.

We're obviously disappointed by Gov. Blagojevich's veto of Senate Bill 83, which would have given the Forest Preserve District of Cook County the authority to borrow up to $50 million on behalf of our institutions. If SB83 was not the right funding mechanism in the minds of policymakers, we hope they will find another one -- and soon.

The Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo are world-class institutions that attract 3 million visitors a year between them. They contribute to the economy of the region and the state. They are centers of research and education for conservation and wildlife issues. They are acknowledged leaders in their fields.

Both the zoo and the garden look to their owner, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, for funding support. For annual operating support, both institutions depend on private support and earned revenues to augment the state authorized annual tax levy, administered through the Forest Preserve District, which accounts for 30 percent of zoo operations and 30 percent of garden operations. Both also look to public support for major repairs and maintenance to these publicly owned assets. Given the veto, we will work with government leaders at the county, state and federal levels to find a way to meet these critical needs.

As the Sun-Times has reported, President John Stroger has taken steps over the last two years to address financial problems in the Forest Preserve District. He has privatized the golf courses, eliminated nearly half of the budgeted positions at the district and brought in a new chief financial officer and a new general superintendent to provide new leadership. These important steps should not be overlooked as the district and Stroger continue to address additional reforms.

At this time, we have no access to any district funds to support necessary maintenance and infrastructure repairs at the zoo and the garden. Further, reforms alone can do relatively little in addressing the decadelong situation of deferred maintenance. With the enactment of the tax cap, for capital purposes, the Forest Preserve District lost 85 percent of its borrowing authority. This is roughly $210 million. Without access to this borrowing authority, how can the district be expected to fulfill its responsibility to protect and maintain 68,000 acres of open space and still provide funding for major improvement projects at our two institutions?

Barbara Whitney Carr,
president and CEO,
Chicago Botanic Garden,
George B. Rabb, president,
Brookfield Zoo



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