When Cook County voters head to the polls for the March primary election, they might be asked to open their wallets, too. There could be a referendum on the ballot asking voters to approve a property tax hike for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The district spans nearly 70,000 acres, a vast collection of natural areas where people can hike, fish, ride horses and even zip line. Yet the forest preserve district needs an infusion of money for its ambitious long-range plans to protect and restore land, acquire even more to protect it from development, and increase pension payments for employees.
The wish list of deferred maintenance and other projects totals nearly $200 million, district records show. There are lots of invasive plants. Cracking parking lots. Hiking trails that need some love.
Conservationists and some fiscal watchdogs have been sounding the alarm for years.
“You have this giant conservation district that is woefully understaffed and underfunded,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves, an independent advocacy group. “They do an incredible job with what they’ve got, and that just wasn’t the case even a few years ago.”
Friends of the Forest Preserves is one of three nonprofits that are lobbying the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners to put the referendum to voters.
The forest preserve commissioners are the same people who make up the board led by Toni Preckwinkle that runs Cook County government. But forest preserve commissioners can’t just hike taxes. They must ask voters to do so in a referendum, or ask state lawmakers to do so, and there’s been little appetite for the latter.
Later this month, forest preserve district commissioners might consider putting the ask to voters. They’re currently negotiating how much money to request, Cox said. The average homeowner now pays between $25 to $45 a year in property taxes to the district, depending on where they live. After working with local pollsters, Cox said the nonprofits suggest the average homeowner contribute an extra $10 to $20 a year. He would not say how much total additional revenue this could bring in for the district.
A spokesman for the forest preserve district declined to answer questions and said no one was available for an interview to discuss the potential referendum. In an email he said, “For some time we have been talking about how to bring additional resources to the Forest Preserves and we continue to explore options to ensure we meet our mission.”
In a statement, President Preckwinkle said the county has worked with limited resources to improve and enhance the forest preserve.
“I have received many calls from people advocating for the Forest Preserves, but it goes without question that there is great sensitivity to any potential levy increase at this time,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “Commissioners and the public will need to weigh in to determine the appetite for this potential measure. Regardless of that outcome, we will continue working with the Forest Preserves to find viable long-term solutions.”
While voters would get to decide this potential tax hike — not their elected leaders — it still would be yet another ask for money. And it’s not clear if district commissioners want to be linked to it, especially so soon after the Cook County Board approved, then repealed, a reviled tax on sugary beverages. (Remember, the same commissioners make up both the county and forest preserve district boards). Preckwinkle cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the so-called soda tax.
Chicago residents especially have been hit with property tax increases in recent years, after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel ushered through a historic hike in order to shore up the city's foundering pension systems. And new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot hasn’t ruled out a property tax hike to help address a projected $838 million budget shortfall for next year.
Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr., who leads several forest preserve district committees, including finance, did not return messages to comment.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District relies on property taxes for the bulk of its revenue. Its 2019 budget totaled almost $120 million.
Yet compared to schools or the government, the forest preserve district gets little property tax revenue from homeowners. For Chicago residents in particular, less than one percent of their property taxes go to the district, according to the district spokesman. In northwest suburban Schaumburg and in south suburban Robbins, it costs homeowners two-tenths of a percent.
After years of tightening the belt through layoffs and outsourcing some services, the district needs more money.
“In 2020 and beyond, the pressures of addressing the pension deficit and rising costs will further constrain the availability of resources to support restoration, acquisition, capital improvements and other … goals,” a 2019 district budget document said. “As a careful steward of its responsibilities, the District will also plan for financial contingencies that require more drastic measures, which would significantly impact and reduce various (forest preserve district) programs and services.”
The organization ticked off a host of financial challenges. The organization’s Next Century Conservation Plan to restore land and acquire another 20,000 acres is estimated to cost more than $2 billion. The district needs $10 million a year over the next 40 years for pension payments, or the fund would be depleted by 2040. There are old facilities, parking lots and roadways that need to be repaired, and lots of natural areas that need to be restored.
The district also gives money to the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which each occupy land the district owns.
Cox hopes to sway every district commissioner to pursue a referendum with voters.
“In some ways it’s probably the best thing that the commissioners deliver to people,” he said of the forest preserves. “ A lot of the other things are wonderful and necessary, but I don’t want to go to the hospital. And I don’t want to go to jail, and I don’t want to go to court and I expect the roads to work. And I’m glad there are police officers, but I don’t want to interact with them if I don’t have to. But the forest preserve is this wonderful, beautiful asset.”
The Forest Preserve District board is scheduled to meet next on Sept. 24 in southwest suburban Palos Park.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.