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Commissioner Suffredin Commentary: Cook County forest preserve budget won’t meet needs of Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Botanic Garden and other land
Commentary from Cook County Commisioner Larry Suffredin

Thursday, November 21, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin

Commentary: Cook County forest preserve budget won’t meet needs of Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Botanic Garden and other land

 

Visitors walk through the Brookfield Zoo, July 18, 2018, in Brookfield.

Visitors walk through the Brookfield Zoo, July 18, 2018, in Brookfield. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is the largest county conservation district in the United States, with more than 70,000 acres of land that include the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden. Millions of people visit each year for picnicking, hiking, boating, biking, horseback riding, fishing and camping.

All of these activities are funded by the Forest Preserve District, whose budget this year provides only a minimal level of funding for operations.

The budget maintains too little support for the botanic garden and the zoo and does not allow them to adequately serve the public. Millions visit and learn about conservation and the environment from these two jewels that anchor the district’s outreach and educational programming. Neither can continue their level of excellence without more money. This budget will force us to take radical actions through increased fees to preserve the garden and the zoo. This will limit our outreach to the poorer members of our community.

I voted against the maintenance 2020 Cook County Forest Preserve District budget this month because it failed to provide resources to protect the work that has been done to protect our land. This budget is the third in a row that does not address the need to protect our land resources and strengthen the commitment to the future. I lost: The final vote was 14-1.

PAID POST

 

Our Forest Preserve land survives because of the thousands of hours that volunteers give to protect our vast and diverse holdings. They called for us to put a citizen referendum on the March 2020 ballot to increase property taxes to cover necessary expenses. This would give voters a voice to increase funding for the district to do three things: Approve funds to expand restoration services on our land; acquire more land while some still exists, and increase our subsidies to the zoo and botanic garden.

After much discussion, it became clear that there was not enough support on the board to place such a citizen referendum on the ballot. Our failure to act places the future of the Forest Preserve District in great jeopardy.

As a non-home rule unit of local government, the district can only raise funds through property taxes, fees or any other authorization the Illinois General Assembly may grant. Tax cap limits on non-home rule units of government have crippled the district’s ability to keep up with inflation. In addition, unfunded mandates from the state have put a pension burden on the district and limited our ability to properly protect the land.

A citizen referendum would have given the voters the right to decide what level of taxation would have been appropriate. The campaign would have highlighted the stormwater protection our lands provide to all, the carbon reduction our trees and other vegetation provide to improve our air quality, and the recreational and educational opportunities the land offers. Unfortunately, the positive discussion this campaign would have raised will never happen. The will of the voters will never be known.

For the last three years, I have stated that the budgets were the best we could do. But we must do better. Now the simple need for more financial resources to protect and acquire land will be in the hands of the General Assembly, which must grant us relief from tax caps.

This budget is the fifth to have input from the Conservation Council, whose role is to help us create a clear vision for the future. The council has called for the last five years to expand land restoration and land acquisition. This budget fails to meet that vision.

We now need a miracle to allow future generations to enjoy the beauty of our land.

Forest Preserve commissioners are also county commissioners, and this budget shows that their attention is much more focused on the county government over the Forest Preserve government. This is the time to consider separating the two and giving the Forest Preserve a separate governing board.

My “no” vote is my plea to find a miracle.

Larry Suffredin is a Cook County commissioner from Evanston.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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We now need a miracle to allow future generations to enjoy the beauty of our land.

Forest Preserve commissioners are also county commissioners, and this budget shows that their attention is much more focused on the county government over the Forest Preserve government. This is the time to consider separating the two and giving the Forest Preserve a separate governing board.

My “no” vote is my plea to find a miracle.

Larry Suffredin is a Cook County commissioner from Evanston.



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