Preckwinkle touts balanced Forest Preserves budget, but admits district’s not out of the woods

A proposed referendum would have asked voters if they supported a property tax increase to support the Forest Preserves, but Preckwinkle said “now is not the time.”

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board earlier this month. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle said Tuesday that she “remains serious and committed” to making sure the Forest Preserves have the money to grow — even though she nixed a proposed referendum that would’ve let residents decide whether that commitment should include a property tax increase.

The increase was described as adding less than $5 a year to the property tax bill for a $100,000 home, but Preckwinkle said “now is not the time.”

Despite presenting a balanced $124 million 2020 budget for the nearly 70,000-acre Cook County Forest Preserve District, Preckwinkle acknowledged the budget doesn’t “fully address the long term fiscal challenges ahead.”

“We’re cognizant of the current atmosphere facing Cook County taxpayers, and it goes without saying there’s a great sensitivity to any potential levy increase,” Preckwinkle said. “But let me be abundantly clear: we remain serious and committed to helping the forest preserves, and we will do everything in our power to help prioritize their needs and help them find viable long term solutions that will benefit all Cook County residents.”

Cook County Forest Preserve’s Camp Reinberg in Palatine in 2012.

Cook County Forest Preserve staffers walk through Camp Reinberg in Palatine in 2012. File Photo.

Richard Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times

One of those long term solutions would’ve been a referendum item on the March 2020 ballot, asking voters if they would support a 0.025% bump in the property tax levy “for the purposes of conserving and restoring land, protecting the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams, providing outdoor programs for children,” and other matters for whichthe Forest Preserve bears some responsibility.

That increase would mean that 0.079%of taxes paidwould go to the county’s growing preserve district. For a $100,000 home, the additional cost would have been around $4.78, according to the language of the referendum.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who championed the ballot measure and was prepared to bring it before the Forest Preserve Board on Tuesday, said he’d worked on shoring up support for it for the past four months.

At the “high-water mark” last week, Suffredin said he had 16 votes on the 17-member board.

When Preckwinkle pulled her support from the measure over the weekend, that support dwindled to five.

Suffredin sounded the fiscal alarm.

“The year after this, we’re in trouble,” he said.

“With no money, we’re going to go backward. We may be put in the position where we’d have to sell land,” instead of acquiring it, Suffredin said.

The County Board doubles as the board of the forest preserve district, but because the preserves are a non-home rule entity, commissioners’ powers are limited. That means they can do little to raise the revenue needed to continue acquiring land and managing the preserves. Beyond letting the voters decide, the board could go to the Illinois General Assembly and ask legislators for help. The last time that happened was in 2004.

In a statement, Preckwinkle said during her time at the helm of the county she has worked with “the limited resources available to make necessary Forest Preserve improvements and enhancements.”

“Commissioners and my office ultimately determined now is not the time for this potential measure, but we will continue exploring all options,” Preckwinkle’s statement continued.

Suffredin said he was disappointed about the withdrawal of support, but said he knows Preckwinkle “agonized” over the decision to pull back. He said he will continue to advocate for the referendum item.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin in 2017.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin comments on the passage of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget in 2017. File Photo.

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times file

“She and I are on the same page,” Suffredin said. “We disagree — I would like to go forward because I would like the people to tell us what they believe we should be doing, but we both understand the need for resources to meet the mission of the forest preserve.”

Preckwinkle has some reason to be wary of tax increases.

The county’s penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax was the last time the county tried to implement a new levy on taxpayers.The Preckwinkle-championed initiative sparked a court challenge, heavily funded campaigns from outside groups both for and against — and a rare County Board revolt.

The pop tax went into effect in the summer of2017 but was repealed in October of that year after county residents expressed their outrage. The repeal of the tax created a roughly $200 million gap in the 2018 budget that was filled by a combination of layoffs, closing vacant positions and furlough days.

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