Cook County Voters to Weigh Forest Preserves Tax Increase in Upcoming Election

It's rare when newspaper editorial boards and fiscal watchdog groups recommend that residents vote to increase their property taxes.

But that's exactly the case as Cook County voters face a binding question on their election ballot: Do you want to pay a little more to help fund the Cook County Forest Preserves? Outside groups have waged a public campaign to convince voters to say yes, because they believe the investment will pay growing dividends.

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The 3,500 acre Busse Woods preserve is known for its trails, lagoons and ancient forests. But a cluster of invasive buckthorn threatens the area's ecology.

“Basically it's a weed that chokes out all the native plants, it doesn't allow sunlight to get to the bottom of the forest,” said Cook County Forest Preserve District Superintendent Arnold Randall, who wants to remove the plant and restore the forest — like it did on the other side of this trail.

But he says the forest preserves need more money for this and nearly 20,000 acres that are in line for a clearing.

“There’s a lot of things we want to do that we wouldn’t be able to do without additional resources,” Randall said.

The Forest Preserves are a quasi separate unit of Cook County government that manages 70,000 acres of public land, along with the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden. It does not have its own taxing authority and must go directly to voters instead.

For the first time in nearly a century, Cook County commissioners voted to put a binding referendum on November's ballot. It asks voters in a roundabout way whether they would support hiking the forest preserve levy a fraction of a percent to bring in $40 million in new revenue annually.

Proponents say that would amount to about $20 a year on a home in Cook County worth $300,000.

Last month, Illinois-born actor Nick Offerman cut an ad for an independent expenditure group called Vote Yes for Clean Air, Clean Water and Wildlife — aimed at getting the public on board.

READ MORE: What Would Ron Swanson Think? Nick Offerman Makes Pitch for Cook County Forest Preserve Tax Levy Hike

The campaign touts the forest preserve's role in absorbing floodwater and improving air quality. It has won the endorsement of local newspaper editorial boards and the Civic Federation, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog group. Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, no fan of higher taxes, says this hike makes sense.

“There's a plan,” Msall said. “This money isn't just going to be thrown into the system.”

Msall says a quarter of the $40 million is earmarked to shore up the district's pension system, which at nearly 60% funding makes it one of the healthiest of all the local government pensions.  He says the district under Randall and Board President Toni Preckwinkle has cleaned up its act.

The remaining $30 million is pegged for restoration, conservation programs and the acquisition of tens of thousands of acres of new land — so Cook County residents can escape to nature outside their front door for decades to come.

Randall says the forest preserves make up about 11% of all the land in Cook County — making it the largest urban preserve of its kind in the country.

“Obviously if you go out west to national parks, that's different,” Randall said. “Here in an urbanized area, to have it so open and accessible makes it so unique and special.”

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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