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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposes raising Forest Preserves budget next year with rainy day funds

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposal for the Forest Preserves budget next year would tap rainy day funds in order to increase spending, she announced while warning of the long-term financial outlook of the 70,000-acre district.

The 7.6% increase for her 2021 budget plan compared with this year’s spending blueprint is due in part to tapping more than 40% of a $43.9 million corporate reserve fund maintained by the Forest Preserves, Preckwinkle said during a Tuesday speech. The total proposed budget would land at about $134.2 million, with much of the increase intended for purchasing green lands and catching up on maintenance. But austerity measures spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic are still reflected in Preckwinkle’s plan.

“None of us know how long this pandemic will continue or what turns it will take,” Preckwinkle said. “Because of that and because the Forest Preserves' reserve funds are not an endless resource, this proposed budget does not address bigger issues facing the Forest Preserves.”

Despite a swell of visitors during the pandemic, the district’s nontax revenue in 2021 is predicted to drop 26%, mostly due to a continued drop in event permits, campground fees and aquatic centers. There also will likely be less investment income if interest rates dip as expected.

To offset this, an ongoing hiring freeze, started this spring with the exception of the preserves' police department and other essential staff, would possibly last until the spring of 2021, and nonpersonnel cuts between 10% and 13% would strike all departments. This would contribute to a 1.9% dip in the corporate budget, which funds the district’s day-to-day operations.

The overall plan was met with cautious approval from Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, who had voted “no” last year on what he described as another “maintenance budget.” He hopes in 2022, a midterm election year, he can push through a referendum to slightly increase real estate taxes for the preserves, which are limited in funds because it does not have a sales tax levy.

“This is probably the best budget she could present at this point,” Suffredin said. “But we’re in a holding pattern, and while that’s better than slipping backwards, it’s not going forward.”

In Preckwinkle’s plan, no new taxes or fees would arrive with the exception of a routine 1% property tax raise, or about 50 cents per household, to capture inflation. That increase has happened annually for about the past decade. About 83% of the forest preserves' operating budget is funded by property taxes, and that revenue for next year is anticipated to total $97.3 million.

The pension fund appropriation would be reduced from $4.1 million this year to $3.9 million, the most the district can allocate next year under a state law formula, while funds for real estate purchases, capital improvements and self-insurance would go up. About $23.3 million would maintain funds for the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden, two partners of the district that sit on forest preserves land.

“The Forest Preserves fiscal year 2021 budget will continue to advance its role as an asset for all of us in Cook County, as open space for nature in our densely populated region, a mitigation against climate change, a place for be outdoors, a 70,000-acre classroom and much more,” Preckwinkle said.

CONTACT

Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.


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