A referendum on the ballot this November will ask Cook County voters for a property tax hike to support and grow the county’s vast forest preserves.
The referendum in the Nov. 8 general election would ask property owners to contribute on average about $1.50 more in property taxes per month toward the preserves, or around $20 a year. About $3 to $4 of a homeowner’s current property tax already goes to the forest preserves each month.
The question before voters comes as the forest preserves became a haven of green space during the pandemic. The number of visitors skyrocketed as people sought a respite from sickness, isolation and boredom. 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. There are nature centers, and a massive set of stairs where exercisers flock that take your breath away.
“If there is a silver lining in a really difficult time for everybody, it’s that people were able to get out and rediscover nature,” said Arnold Randall, general superintendent of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
County officials and more than 150 organizations also tout the environmental benefits of the preserves, such as absorbing rainwater during storms and creating cleaner air.
Jean Franczyk, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, which sits on forest preserve district land, lays out what’s at stake: “A set of green lungs for the region.”
If approved, officials estimate the tax increase would generate just over $40 million in additional funding a year. They say the extra cash would help the county address ambitious goals, like acquiring nearly 3,000 additional acres to protect it from development, restoring some 20,000 more acres over the next 20 years and paying for workers’ pensions.
“I always say the Forest Preserve is the second most important resource in our area, after Lake Michigan,” said Larry Suffredin, who sits on the Forest Preserve District board. The same commissioners make up the Cook County Board.
Suffredin has tried for eight years to get the referendum on the ballot and finally found success last year. He said he saw momentum for the referendum grow as people increasingly embraced going outside and ventured into the forest preserves’ wetlands, canopies of trees and along its waterways during the pandemic.
“President (Toni) Preckwinkle … realized she was in a situation where if she didn’t get additional revenues to keep this forest preserve strong, we’d be put in a dire situation of having to cut programs, even the potential of selling some land,” Suffredin recalled.
Commissioners unanimously voted to put the referendum on the ballot.
For years the forest preserve district, advocates and some commissioners have sounded the alarm that the district hasn’t had enough resources. This year the district has a roughly $137 million budget, with more than $78 million in unfunded maintenance over the next five years, such as old roofs at picnic shelters that need to be replaced and parking lots that need to be repaved. Randall calls them fixes that may not be exciting, but necessary. And every year, there’s a shortfall of about $10 million for the district’s pension fund. Without any changes, the fund is estimated to run out of money by 2041, according to district budget records. Most of the retirees don’t receive Social Security benefits.
If voters approve the referendum to hike taxes, the forest preserve district would share some of the additional funding with the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo. Both occupy forest preserve district land and already receive funding from the district.
The Botanic Garden, for example, would get an extra $2.4 million a year. Franczyk called that steady stream of revenue “game-changing,” and said the money could be used to update decades-old heating systems and roofs, and to maintain roads, prairies and waterways.
The Chicago-based Civic Federation, which analyzes government finances, has yet to take a formal position on the referendum. But President Laurence Msall said the forest preserve district has cut spending and significantly improved its financial management over the years while offering more services.
He noted the referendum comes at a time when the city of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools are looking to increase property taxes, too.
If the referendum fails, there would be “difficult choices” on what could be done with the resources the district has, Randall said.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.