Cook County Board OKs $25M For Forest Preserve Upgrades | WBEZ
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Cook County Board OKs $25M For Forest Preserve Upgrades

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is giving the county Forest Preserve District $25 million over five years to help fix worn down trails and crumbling roads.

The county on Thursday gave final approval to divert money from the motor fuel tax fund to the Forest Preserve District, which is a separate unit of government. The District plans to use the money to make improvements at more than 55 locations.

“This funding not only allows us to repair potholes and cracked pavement. It’s an opportunity for us to evaluate and undertake site-by-site improvements at many locations that have not had this type of attention for more than 20 years,” said Arnold Randall, the District’s general superintendent, after Thursday’s meeting where commissioners approved the funding.

Still, $25 million isn’t much compared to the District’s $154 million wish list of deferred maintenance and new projects.

And that’s scaled back from last year’s to-do list. District leaders have said they need to shore up money to contribute more to their employees’ pensions. They also want to forge ahead on ambitious plans to restore more land to its natural state and buy more land to protect it from development.

When asked if $25 million was enough, Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle quipped: “Clearly more needs to be done.”

Preckwinkle leads the Forest Preserve District board, too. She said she plans to head to Springfield to lobby state lawmakers for more money for the forest preserves.

The county is also mulling other options, such as waiving certain fees the forest preserve district pays for using county services like IT support, and allocating state capital funding for infrastructure maintenance for the district, as well as for the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The zoo in the west suburbs and the Garden in the north suburbs both sit on forest preserve district land.

The $25 million from the county is a compromise of sorts. Last fall, county commissioners who also sit on the Forest Preserve District Board rejected the idea of putting a referendum on the ballot for voters.

Voters would have been asked to support a property tax hike to raise around $40 million a year for the district.

The Cook County Forest Preserves is one of the oldest and largest in the nation, with about 62 million visits a year. It’s a collection of nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas, from wetlands to towering trees.

Advocates lobbied commissioners for the referendum because commissioners first have to approve putting the measure on the ballot before voters can weigh in.

Property taxes are the main way the forest preserve district makes money, and the amount the government agency can raise in taxes each year is capped at either 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. That’s according to the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that analyzes government finances.

Currently, the average homeowner pays less than $50 a year in property taxes for the preserves, which are largely open and free. The referendum would have asked voters to pay on average about $17 more a year.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.

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