Preckwinkle, commissioners signal support for Forest Preserves tax hike referendum
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and key members of the county board of commissioners signaled they will consider asking voters for permission to raise their own property taxes in an effort to bolster the county’s 77,000-acre Forest Preserve District.
Commissioners on Tuesday repeatedly nodded to the binding ballot referendum, which would be posed to county voters in 2022 at the earliest, before voting 15-0 to approve a $134 million budget for the district in the 2021 fiscal year. The approved budget avoids closures, layoffs or a significant tax hike despite a sharp drop in revenue collected by the district, but leaders have warned the forest preserves face a long-term budget crisis if they don’t get more funding soon.
“The referendum…is something we need to talk about, because these problems aren’t going away,” Comm. Scott Britton (D-14) said Tuesday. “They need to be addressed, including the funding mechanisms to get them done.”
Related: Forest Preserves budget limits short-term pain but lets long-term woes fester, leaders say
The district lacks funding to address a $41 million in deferred maintenance, and officials have warned its pension fund could be depleted by 2040 without additional payments.
The approved 2021 budget will raise property taxes in line with inflation, amounting to approximately an extra $0.50 on the average property owner’s tax bill next year. But because the district does not have home rule authority under state law, its property tax growth may not outpace inflation without approval through a ballot referendum.
Advocates for a property tax increase say adding about $15 to the annual bill of the average homeowner would be enough to right the system’s financial ship.
“Next year, I hope we can look forward to a referendum and a COVID-free budget,” said Cook County Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13), a longtime advocate for raising the tax, before casting a vote to approve the budget on Tuesday. Last year, Suffredin voted against the forest preserves budget in protest of its lack of a long-term funding plan.
After commissioners voted to approve her spending plan on Tuesday, Preckwinkle said she looks “forward to working with Commissioner Suffredin on a referendum to increase support of our forest preserve system.”
A spokesperson clarified in a statement later on Tuesday that Preckwinkle’s comments did not reflect a full-throated endorsement of adding the ballot referendum but rather expressed a “willingness to explore this option further with the Board of Commissioners.” It would take nine of the board’s 17 commissioners to approve adding a question to the ballot.
Advocates predict success where ‘Fair Tax’ failed
The president said Tuesday she looked forward to seeing a potential referendum in an “environment that’s not complicated by a state referendum around taxes” — a reference to Gov. JB Pritzker’s failed graduated income tax proposal.
Suffredin and advocates for the forest preserves pushed last year for a tax increase referendum to be posed to voters in 2020, but Preckwinkle and commissioners bowed to pressure from Democrats in Springfield who worried it could compete with Pritzker’s proposed constitutional amendment.
Related: Commissioners declare Forest Preserves tax hike ‘dead as dead can get,’ but advocates vow to push on
“Hopefully there will be a different political environment in ‘22,” Preckwinkle said Tuesday, noting that “ironically,” the graduated income tax referendum performed most poorly in parts of Cook County located closest to forest preserves.
“Should we proceed, we have our work cut out for us,” she said.
A referendum for the forest preserves would likely be a less heavy lift than the “Fair Tax,” in part because it would not need statewide support. Pritzker’s tax proposal got a “yes” vote from nearly 63 percent of Cook County voters, Comm. John Daley (11) noted on Tuesday.
The forest preserves referendum could also be approved by simple majority, unlike the 60 percent threshold required to amend the state’s constitution.
Still, Daley said a property tax hike would likely need support from a “grassroots organization…it can’t just be from elected members of this board.”
Even Comm. Sean Morrison (R-17), one of two Republicans on the board and an outspoken fiscal conservative, said he was open to posing the question to voters. Morrison’s southwest-suburban district includes more acres of forest preserves than that of any other commissioner.
“If we want revenue, going to the public in a referendum is the most democratic way to go about it,” Morrison told The Daily Line after Tuesday’s hearing. “Let the majority decide — that’s always the best way to do it.”
Morrison added that his support for a referendum would be conditional on whether it has “concise and transparent language” that does not itself advocate the tax hike. He also said he did not know whether he would personally vote “yes” on the question.
Benjamin Cox, executive director of the group Friends of the Forest Preserves, has repeatedly predicted such a referendum would pass if posed to voters, even as they fatigue of relentless property tax growth.
He pointed to Champaign County, where a Nov. 3 ballot measure to raise taxes for local forest preserves passed 57 to 43 percent — even as the “Fair Tax” failed there by a similar margin.
“We’re talking about a local government people can easily understand and identify, and they know why it’s important to fund it,” Cox said. “It’s much more nebulous to think about what the state is going to do with a bunch of extra money.”
“People understand the need for open space, for ecological services, for stormwater storage, for carbon sequestration,” he said.
If the extra funding does not arrive, county leaders have warned the district’s only other option to make ends meet would likely be to sell off some of its land. That would run counter to the district’s Next Century Conservation Plan, which includes a blueprint to acquire more than 20,000 additional acres for the district by 2040.
“We appreciate the ongoing conversation about how to best provide the dedicated funding that the Forest Preserves requires to be on a sustainable fiscal path and fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Forest Preserve District wrote in a statement Tuesday. “The discussion of this year’s budget and our future at the Board of Commissioner’s meeting today are another clear indication of the commitment of President Preckwinkle and Commissioners to this process.”