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What Would Ron Swanson Think? Nick Offerman Makes Pitch for Cook County Forest Preserve Tax Levy Hike
Thursday, September 29, 2022 WTTW News by Patty Wetli
His alter ego, Ron Swanson, may have been an anti-government government employee, but in real life, actor Nick Offerman has thrown his support behind a referendum that would increase the property tax levy for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The Joliet native and University of Illinois alum stars in a newly released video encouraging people to “pay it forward for the next generation. Be like me: a regular old entertainment juggernaut from Illinois who gets it. And vote yes this fall for clean air, water and wildlife.”
Offerman provided his endorsement and services for free, after being approached by the Vote Yes campaign, a coalition of more than 150 organizations pushing for the referendum’s passage.
“One of our steering committee members knew someone who knew him (Offerman),” explained Benjamin Cox, president of Friends of the Forest Preserves, a leading coalition member.
The actor’s participation was a “genuine thing,” Cox added, with Offerman kicking off a phone call by telling the committee, “I have benefited from your foliage in the past.”
“Turns out he likes parks and recreation,” Cox said, pun totally intended.
What is the referendum?
With roughly six weeks to go until the November election, the Vote Yes campaign is kicking into high gear, taking its case to the public.
The measure would increase the forest preserves’ levy by .025% — or one-fourth of one-tenth of 1% — to a total of .076%. The average homeowner could expect to see their property taxes go up $20 a year, according to Cox.
Why is the forest preserves asking for it?
In the past decade, the district has doubled the amount of land under restoration, added campgrounds, expanded trails and doubled the number of programs offered. The number of visitors skyrocketed during the pandemic. At the same time, the district’s budget has grown less than 10%, according to General Superintendent Arnold Randall.
Though tax increases are typically a tough sell, Cox said people’s response to the referendum has been uniformly positive, even as rising inflation eats into their spending power.
“This year’s rough, but the forest preserves are important,” he said.
Where will the money go?
If it passes, the levy would generate an additional $43 million annually for the preserves. “It would be a huge shot in the arm,” Cox said. “People may not even notice [the] amount on their bill but they will notice the impact in the woods.”
The district would use the money to create new programs, catch up on long deferred maintenance, double the size of its Conservation Corps, acquire more land and fund the habitat restoration of 20,000 additional acres.
Twenty years ago, folks didn’t know what restoration meant, Cox said. Now they’ve seen the difference it makes when invasive species are cleared from a forest or when water is allowed to return to its natural rhythms and paths in a wetland. People have come to appreciate that preserving land is only half the equation, he said, and that keeping it healthy is the other.
In return, the preserves keep us healthy, Cox said, by removing pollutants from the air, slowing and storing stormwater, reducing the urban heat island, and mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Climate change is this overwhelming thing,” he said. “This (referendum) has got to be one of the easiest things you can do to have a big impact on climate change.”
In a state known for its corruption, voters could be forgiven for wondering whether their tax dollars will indeed be used for the greater good or just wind up lining the pockets of cronies of well-connected politicians.
Cox said he understands the skepticism, and if this proposal had arisen a decade ago, Friends of the Forest Preserves wouldn’t have backed the referendum.
Before his organization signed off on leading the referendum campaign, they asked for and received assurances regarding how the money would be spent.
“There’s just been a huge shift under (Cook County Board President Toni) Preckwinkle,” he said, including the creation of a master plan that has everyone rowing in the same direction regarding restoration priorities. “They have turned the forest preserves around. It's something.”
Should the political winds begin to blow in a different direction, Cox said members the Vote Yes coalition would expect any future administrations to honor the promises made by current officeholders.
“There’s 170 organizations who care about where this money is going,” he said.