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Busse Woods

With Schaumburg buildings on the horizon, a runner takes a last run of the year in Cook County Forest Preserve’s Busse Woods. Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and the Forest Preserves, is pitching a proposed nearly $189 million budget for next year.

Richard A. Chapman

Here’s a look at how Toni Preckwinkle plans to improve the Forest Preserves next year

After years of some advocates and public officials sounding the alarm about not having enough money and resources at the Forest Preserves of Cook County, there’s hope for the future.

Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as president of the district and Cook County boards, is pitching a proposed nearly $189 million budget for next year. That’s $6.6 million or nearly 4% more than this year’s budget. (For comparison, Preckwinkle is pitching a $9 billion budget for Cook County government.)

“At this moment a year ago, we were at a crossroads,” Preckwinkle said Tuesday during her budget speech from the county’s boardroom in downtown Chicago. “For years, fiscal constraints had limited progress and improvements in the forest preserves. Without more resources we would have to prepare to lower our expectations for what could be accomplished and cut back on what the preserves offer.”

Now more resources are available. Preckwinkle’s proposed 2024 budget comes about a year after taxpayers in a referendum overwhelmingly voted to give more tax dollars to the preserves. More than 150 organizations championed the referendum to help the preserves tackle ambitious plans and maintain environmental benefits, like its vast tree canopy creating cleaner air. Preckwinkle eventually overcame her own resistance to the tax hike.

The effort was key because the district gets the majority of its funding from property taxes. The tax hike brought in an extra roughly $41 million this past year to the district, bringing the total collected in property tax to about $147 million. In budget documents the district said it used the additional money to restore trails, acquire more land to protect it from development and broaden outreach to communities of color.

“We have just begun our journey down this path, but you can already see improvements in the preserves that simply would not have happened without referendum resources,” Preckwinkle said.

She ticked off a list of people and described how they use the preserves: bird walks in Busse Woods, board meetings at the Swallow Cliff pavilion, volunteers who help patrol the trails.

Officials have said they expect to generate a similar amount of money every year from the tax hike, and next year they estimate to bring in nearly $150 million in total property tax, budget documents show.

The county’s forest preserves are one of the largest in the U.S., with nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas where people can hike, fish, bike, camp and even zipline. The picnic groves are legendary for family reunions. The Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden sit on forest preserve land.

In 2024, district leaders have a bevy of priorities. They include a focus on making the preserves a more equitable place to work and visit by deepening partnerships with the Indigenous American community and hiring a full-time racial equity coordinator, budget documents show. The district also wants to propose state legislation to better regulate firearm conceal carry in certain locations in the forest preserves.

There are plans to restore 400 acres of woodlands and floodplains in the south suburbs, add more conservation programs and advocate for outdoor classrooms to bring people closer to nature.

Other goals include adding a bike rental program and creating new opportunities for small businesses to sell concessions or “recreational offerings.”

Leaders plan to help accomplish all of this in part by adding 58 new workers, bringing the total payroll to just over 720 people. The majority of employees are full time.

The district plans to contribute $12.4 million toward pension payments. In previous budgets, district leaders warned of coming up about $10 million short every year toward pensions — and running out of money for the pension fund by 2041 if nothing changed.

The Forest Preserve District is a separate unit of government from Cook County. The same commissioners oversee both boards.

There’s a public hearing about the proposed budget scheduled for Oct. 26. Commissioners are set to vote on the spending plan in November, and if approved it takes effect Jan. 1.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ. Follow @kschorsch.

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