Cook County Forest Preserve Property Tax Increase Referendum
Cook County voters would be asked to weigh in on whether to raise property taxes as a way to stabilize the Forest Preserves’ finances during the November 2022 general election under a proposed referendum that all commissioners in charge of the district indicated they want on the ballot.
All 17 commissioners have signed on as co-sponsors of the potential referendum, which was sent to a committee this week for further consideration. Although their support doesn’t necessarily amount to a tax hike endorsement, the move paves the way for the voters to say “yes” or “no” next year to property owners opening their wallets to help maintain the 70,000 acres of green lands, trails and water that officials say are in dire need of more cash.
The chief sponsor, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, said he thinks the time is now to raise taxes because the district’s fiscal situation is in “a precarious state,” with the possibility of selling off land to stay afloat looming in the future. Suffredin has announced he’s not planning to seek another term when his current one expires.
“It’s such a small amount, but the responsibility we have for the 70,000 acres and putting together positive use of the land costs more than we can currently do,” Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, said in a phone interview. “People see that there’s not a lot of places to waste money and that these programs that they can do are such that they really do improve the quality of life.”
The referendum calls for a 0.025% increase to a total of 0.076% in property taxes, which amounts to hiking up the average Chicago homeowner’s bill by about $1.50 a month, or less than $20. That would shore up $41,729,404 for the Forest Preserves, which only kept its structural deficit steady this year thanks to rainy day funds.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also president of the Forest Preserves Board, said Wednesday she would personally vote for the tax hike if it appears on the ballot next year.
“I believe for a long time that the Forest Preserve needs resources to continue to provide the programming and do the restoration work that’s desperately needed, so there’s clearly a need for additional resources,” Preckwinkle said.
After the resolution clears the Forest Preserve board’s finance committee, it will go to a full floor vote sometime next month before another round of votes in December that would finalize the language, Suffredin said. He said the money should be used to acquire and restore land, improve programming for the community, address the backlog of maintenance needs, support the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden and, perhaps most importantly, help close the funding gap for the district’s pension shortfall.
The $134 million Forest Preserves district budget is limited in funds because as a non-home rule unit of government, it does not have a sales tax levy, so more than 80% of its operating budget is supported by property taxes. Much of the rest comes from fees such as campground permits, but such nontax revenue dipped during the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions.
That led to Preckwinkle passing a 2021 budget that withdrew more than 40% of a $43.9 million corporate reserve fund. In October, she cast a grim outlook for the district’s long-term fiscal future and said her budget proposal will not “address the bigger issues” in Forest Preserves.
However, both Preckwinkle and many commissioners did not throw their support behind a property tax hike referendum for the November 2020 election, despite Suffredin’s urging. He and Preckwinkle said that was due to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s own plan for a graduated income tax, which ultimately failed, taking precedence on a ballot that Democrats did not want to crowd with another question related to levies.
“I don’t know that it was a change of heart as much as it was trying to understand the political strategy that the governor was promoting,” Suffredin said, adding that this time, “I don’t expect that we will have a problem.”