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A "Yes" Vote for Cook County Forest Preserve 2018 Budget and a Renewed Call for a Referendum to Save Our Forest Preserves

Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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On December 12, 2017, I voted for a 2018 Forest Preserve District Budget to protect the work that has been done to protect our land. This budget is far from perfect and contains serious reductions to the flat maintenance budgets passed over the last four years. This crisis budgeting can't continue if we are to manage our land assets correctly. The 2018 Budget must be the last time we ignore the actual needs of the Forest Preserves.

Our Forest Preserves are only surviving because of the thousands of hours that our volunteers give to protect our vast and diverse land holdings. We all owe these dedicated volunteer workers a thank you for their service.

For the last two years, I have stated that the budgets were the best we can do; but we must figure out how to improve. These budgets reveal the constitutional and statutory structural weakness of the "Non-Home Rule" Cook County Forest Preserve District. Unlike Cook County which is a "Home Rule" government, the Forest Preserves can only raise operating funds through property taxes that are capped; fees from earned services i.e. campground rentals, golf fees; and fines from those abusing our public lands through unlawful acts. These sources of income are all limited and are not adequate to properly fund essential activities. For the last three years flat budgets let us survive while ignoring our duty to provide better resources for our residents.

The 2018 Budget continues to provide: support and encouragement for our volunteers; resources for our staff; restoration opportunities for our land; strategies to acquire additional land;

5.improvements in recreational opportunities; and

6.expansion of intern opportunities.

This Budget is the third to have input from the Conservation Council whose role is to help us create a clear vision for the future. The Council has called for the last three years to expanded land restoration and land acquisition. Neither is properly funded in this budget.

The Budget reduces our support of the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Brookfield Zoo by a $1 million. The current level of funding is too low to assist either in performing their missions. These two jewels anchor our outreach and educational programming. Neither the Garden nor the Zoo can continue their level of excellence without increased funding - not reduced funding. The need to develop plans to help the Garden and the Zoo expand their positive programming and to provide further opportunities to improve our land need a bolder vision of funding for the Forest Preserves.

As with last three years, this budget does not address the pension funding issue. We must develop a plan to solve this funding problem that all levels of government are struggling to resolve.

For the last two years I have warned that you can only keep a minimal maintenance budget for so long before you threaten all the good you do. I had hoped that the 2018 budget would contain bold plans to show how to get beyond minimal maintenance. Unfortunately, that planning did not occur and now we must look for bold steps or we will fail in future years.

I renew my call to trust our voters and ask them to approve a referendum to increase tax funding to do three things:

1.Approve funds to expand restoration services on our land;

2.Acquire additional land while some still exists; and

3.Increase our subsidies to the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

A referendum is the only way the Cook County Forest Preserve District can obtain the funds it needs to fulfill its mission. The earliest a referendum could be held is now 2020. We need to trust that our voters will give us wise guidance, so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of our land.

Finally, this budget shows that the attention of the Commissioners is much more focused on the County government and not on the Forest Preserve government. This is the time to consider separating the two governments and giving the Forest Preserves a separate governing board.

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