Toni Preckwinkle touted the magic of nature on Friday as she pitched her proposed Cook County Forest Preserve budget for 2023.
As president of the forest preserve district’s board of commissioners, she evoked images of children making walking sticks, collecting native seeds to replant in the spring and roasting hot dogs over a campfire.
“For many young people, this kind of experience unlocks a whole new world,” Preckwinkle said.
With nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas, the forest preserves are one of the largest in the U.S. There are nature centers, campgrounds, lakes, rivers and miles and miles of trails. The forest preserve district is a separate unit of government from the county, both of which are led by the same board of commissioners.
For 2023, Preckwinkle’s proposed budget for the preserves is $140.7 million. That’s a 2.8% increase from the current budget year and includes tapping $19 million in reserves due to rising inflationary costs, the need to address deferred maintenance and to buy more land before it is developed, Preckwinkle said.
About $23 million is earmarked for the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo, which each sit on forest preserve district land. This is the same level of funding as last year.
After painting a bucolic picture of what the preserves offer, Preckwinkle laid out the preserves’ financial challenges.
“What (the budget) does not do is address the chronic fiscal issues that the Forest Preserves face,” she said.
For example, there’s more than $78 million in unfunded maintenance needs over the next several years to replace roofs and HVAC systems, repave parking lots and repair dams and shorelines, the proposed budget outlines. The pension fund needs $10 million a year or else it will run out of money by 2041, and both the Zoo and Botanic Garden each have urgent capital improvements.
Preckwinkle said the forest preserve district doesn’t have the resources to “make substantive progress” on its bold conservation plan. This year, the county will add 110 acres of land to the preserves due to funding from the state and others.
“That’s a far cry from the forest preserve’s aspirational goal of 21,000 more acres of preserved land over 25 years,” Preckwinkle said. “Project-by-project external grants are simply insufficient — insufficient — to build sustained momentum.”
The potential solution to these financial woes, Preckwinkle said, is a referendum on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election for a property tax hike. The forest preserve is asking voters if they would pay on average about $1.50 more in property tax per month, or around $20 a year. Now, homeowners currently contribute about $3 to $4 in property tax a month to the preserves.
If approved, officials estimate the tax hike would generate just over $40 million in additional funding a year. They say they would use the extra cash to acquire nearly 3,000 additional acres to protect it from development, restore some 20,000 more acres over the next 20 years and pay more into workers’ pensions, among other needs.
For years Preckwinkle and several commissioners resisted a property tax hike. But some commissioners and conservation advocates kept raising the alarm about the preserves’ finances and the need to restore and buy up more land before it’s developed. By law, the forest preserve district is limited in how much it can raise property taxes, which are its main source of revenue.
If the referendum does not pass, the forest preserve district may reduce services, increase fees, cut programs and restore less land, according to the proposed budget.
The public can weigh in during an Oct. 18 virtual public hearing. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on Dec. 1. The new budget would begin on Jan. 1.
WBEZ’s Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government. Follow her @kschorsch.