A bicyclist rides through the southwest suburban Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve, part of the expansive Cook County Forest Preserves.
The likely chief sponsor of a measure that would have asked voters for a property tax hike to raise about $40 million a year for the Cook County Forest Preserves said Tuesday he’s going to keep fighting for it.
“I really believe the Forest Preserve is in a very difficult spot,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat from Evanston. “I appreciate the president and respect her judgment on this, but we’ve got to continue to make the case for why the Forest Preserve needs additional revenue.”
Suffredin, a Forest Preserve District Commissioner (the same commissioners make up the Cook County Board), spoke at a district board meeting Tuesday. Advocates hoped Suffredin would introduce a plan to put a referendum on the 2020 ballot asking voters for an extra $17 a year in property taxes for the Forest Preserves to fund bold, expensive plans.
But Democratic Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who runs county government and the forest preserve board, won’t support it. That’s even though voters -- not elected officials -- would have been the ones to approve or reject the tax hike.
Suffredin said commissioners quickly followed suit and sided with Preckwinkle. Suffredin said he had 16 supporters last week. Now he has five, including himself. So he didn’t propose the referendum on Tuesday.
Suffredin said Preckwinkle has grown to love the forest preserves, so he thinks she “agonized’ over her decision not to support the referendum. Early in her tenure, Suffredin said, he got Preckwinkle to go on a group canoe trip on the north branch of the Chicago River.
“That’s the infamous one where she fell in the water,” Suffredin said.
Preckwinkle would not comment beyond a statement she released late Monday, when she said “now is not the time” for the referendum.
“We are cognizant of the current atmosphere and it goes without question there is great sensitivity to any potential levy increase,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “Let me be clear, we remain serious and committed to helping the Forest Preserves and will do everything in our power to help prioritize their needs and help them find viable long-term solutions.”
The move toward a referendum would have come as Chicagoans in Cook County in particular brace for financial pain as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot hustles to close a $838 million budget shortfall. She’s already in the midst of a days-long teacher strike at Chicago Public Schools.
And just a few years ago, county commissioners faced a swift backlash for taxing sugary beverages. The measure was quickly repealed.
In a statement late Monday, Forest Preserve District spokesman Carl Vogel said, "We fought hard and will continue to advocate for the needs of the Forest Preserves to ensure they are top of mind of President Preckwinkle and the Commissioners. We are disappointed, but we appreciate the President and the Board’s ongoing commitment to the Forest Preserves.”
The Cook County-run Forest Preserves is one of the oldest and largest in the nation, with more than 60 million visits a year. It’s a collection of nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas, from wetlands to towering trees.
Advocates have been lobbying commissioners for the referendum because commissioners first have to approve putting the measure on the ballot before voters can weigh in.
Advocates and Forest Preserve District leaders have ambitious plans to restore more land to its natural state and buy more land to protect it from development. The district also needs to pay $10 million more a year in pension payments for employees, or that fund could run out of money in the next 20 years. The district’s deferred maintenance backlog and other projects total nearly $200 million.
But property taxes are the main way the district makes money, and the amount the government agency can raise in taxes each year is capped at either 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, according to the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that analyzes government finances.
Currently, the average homeowner pays less than $50 a year in property taxes for the preserves, which are largely open and free. The referendum would have asked voters to pay on average about $17 more a year.
It’s not clear what district leaders will do now to find more money. There aren’t many options. Suffredin suggested lobbying state lawmakers.
“If we don’t come up with this money, then we’re going to go backwards,” Suffredin said. “We could be put in a position where we’d have to consider selling land rather than acquiring land to be able to meet the needs.”
Not everyone agrees with Suffredin. Commissioner Bill Lowry, a Chicago Democrat, said he would not have supported the referendum if it came up for a vote.
“I think there’s a lot that we can do,” Lowry said. “We just have to think out of the box, but we have to refrain from always going back to the taxpayers for more taxes.”
He suggested public-private partnerships, like corporate sponsors for sites within the preserves.
Preckwinkle on Tuesday presented the Forest Preserve District’s proposed 2020 budget. It’s about $125 million, a roughly 4 percent increase from last year. About $23 million of that would go to the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which sit on Forest Preserves land.
In her budget speech, Preckwinkle said there are no layoffs. The district has cut costs by eliminating landline phones and outsourcing the management of campgrounds and room rentals, among other things.
She also acknowledged, though, the proposed budget doesn’t “fully address the long-term fiscal challenges ahead.”
“The year after this, we’re in real trouble,” Suffredin said.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch