Leaders at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County have a pretty long to-do list: buy more land to protect it from development; bring more of the land back to its natural state; bring in more activities; and chip in more to workers’ pensions.
The wish list is expensive. The big idea to pay for it: pitching a question to voters on the 2020 ballot. Would they be willing to pay more in property taxes for the forest preserve district?
What the referendum might say and how much it would cost taxpayers hasn’t been finalized yet. Cook County commissioners who oversee the government’s open lands haven’t introduced the measure during a public meeting yet. Many aren’t sold on the idea themselves. After all, being linked to a tax hike is serious business for a politician. But for the measure to get on the ballot, they need to approve putting it to voters.
As momentum from advocates of the Forest Preserves is growing, here are some highlights to know about the county’s trove of nature, and what’s fueling the proposed ballot question.
1. A canopy of green
The Cook County-run Forest Preserves are one of the oldest and largest in the nation, with more than 60 million visits a year. It’s a collection of nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas. Besides the lakefront, the county’s miles of prairies, wetlands and woods are the region’s other expanse of natural beauty one might think of.
Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves, ticks off a list of things people might not know about the woods.
“Hundreds of miles of trails for walking, biking, horseback riding. You’ll see people out with dog sleds on wheels,” said Cox, whose nonprofit is among those calling for the referendum. “There’s people that have been coming for generations, I mean 20, 30, 40, 50 years to have their annual family reunion in the forest preserves.”
And lots more: fishing, camping, fields to fly model airplanes.
There are environmental benefits, too, Cox says, like the blanket of trees and wetlands that help prevent flooding and provide a canopy of green that helps clean the air.
2. The case for more money
The Forest Preserve District’s budget is about $120 million a year. Some of its funds go to the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden — both sit on district land.
Property taxes are the main way the 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, according to the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that analyzes government finances. Yet the district needs to pay $10 million more a year in pension payments for employees, or that fund could run out of money in the next 20 years. Its deferred maintenance backlog and other projects total nearly $200 million. And the district has an ambitious plan to buy more land in order to protect it from development. That alone is estimated to cost about $2 billion over 25 years.
“The need for us, frankly, is very significant,” said Arnold Randall, general superintendent of the Forest Preserve District. “We have limited resources.”
Randall said the district has laid off workers and outsourced some services, like golf courses, to private vendors to cut costs.
Laurence Msall, who runs the Civic Federation, said he’s seen significant investments in the Forest Preserves. But he has concerns, particularly the need for a long-term plan to pay more into pensions.
“Maintaining a Forest Preserve District with its very narrow revenue source … is probably not enough to stabilize this government,” Msall said.
Among his suggestions: join other public pension funds that have higher rates of return.
3. So, how could the Forest Preserves get more money?
One way is through a referendum. Nonprofit advocates are lobbying Forest Preserve District commissioners to put one on the ballot next year. The measure would ask voters to pay more property taxes into the portion that goes to the Forest Preserves.
Currently, the average homeowner pays less than $50 a year for the preserves, which are open and largely free to everyone. While the numbers aren’t final, the latest proposal would ask voters to pay on average $17 more a year. This would raise just over $40 million a year for the preserves, said Cox from the Friends of the Forest Preserves.
The referendum would be an unusual ask. The measure would be the first countywide tax hike pitch to voters in at least 35 years, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office. The agency tracks elections.
Typically, government leaders just hike taxes. They don’t ask for voters’ permission.
But for this proposal, the first step would come from forest preserve commissioners who oversee the preserves. They would decide whether to put a tax hike referendum on the ballot. These commissioners are the same people who make up the board led by Toni Preckwinkle that runs Cook County government.
4. Who else would benefit from money raised through a referendum?
Leaders of the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden. They each also have big to-do lists.
The zoo in west suburban Brookfield had nearly 2 million visitors in 2018. It showcases thousands of animals. Stuart Strahl, president and CEO, said the Forest Preserve District provides a little over 20% of the zoo’s roughly $65 million budget. The zoo, like the district, has received little recent help from the state for capital needs.
“It’s difficult to see a future when you have $170 million worth of deferred capital maintenance,” Strahl said. “Our goal with this referendum is to make sure the zoo is safe.”
Jean Franczyk, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, said almost a quarter of the Garden’s $39 million budget comes from the Forest Preserve District. The Botanic Garden attracts more than a million people a year to its roughly 385-acre campus in north suburban Glencoe.
The projects on Franczyk’s plate? “The list is as long as your arm,” she said.
They include fixing a road to the back entrance that’s cracked like alligator skin, and adding more bathrooms. Then there’s just maintaining what Franczyk calls “a living museum.” The garden had to remove hundreds of plants after Chicago’s extreme cold last year.
5. Why a tax hike could be a hard sell
Chicagoans in particular have been crushed by waves of property tax hikes to fund pensions for city workers. New Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said another hike would be her last resort.
Homeowners in suburban Cook County haven’t been spared either. Residents who live in the south suburbs, for example, live in some of the poorest communities, yet they pay some of the highest property taxes in the county.
Donna Miller is a commissioner who represents the south suburbs. She’s a big fan of the Forest Preserve District. She said she even took her husband ziplining there instead of a steak dinner for his birthday. But she understands the struggles some of the people who live in her district face.
“When you’re already paying for property taxes and transportation and just the other regular things that people have to incur, especially out in our area in the south suburbs, it just might not be something that people are willing to pay for,” Miller said.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.