Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s 2024 Forest Preserve budget address was a far cry from her 2023 speech.
“At this moment a year ago, we were at a crossroads,” Preckwinkle said Tuesday, as she submitted the 2024 budget during a special meeting of the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners. “Unless more resources became available, we would have to prepare to lower our expectations for what could be accomplished and cut back on what the preserves offer.”
Those resources did become available, though, when voters approved a referendum to raise their taxes one-quarter of one-tenth of a percent in order to pump additional funds — some $40 million annually — into the preserves.
The 2024 budget reflects the more ambitious goals made possible by the preserves’ newfound financial stability.
“For the first time in a long time, it is not the budget of an agency in a holding pattern, keeping long-term, pressing needs at bay,” Preckwinkle said. “For Fiscal Year 2024, we are moving forward.”
The total budget of $188.7 million represents a 3.6% increase over 2023, including $30.5 million disbursed to the Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which will receive $18.9 million and $11.6 million, respectively.
Among the highlights:
— Continued expansion of the district’s seven Conservation Corps programs, which employed nearly 300 participants in 2023. A new Gap Year program was introduced in 2023, enrolling graduates of the high school summer Conservation Corps programs who wanted to continue to pursue conservation work.
— Newly created positions will support goals laid out in the preserves’ Next Century Conservation Plan. These include openings for a restoration hydrologist and ecology field supervisor, as the district aims to tackle projects including restoration of 400 acres of habitat at forest preserves in the Tinley Creek and Thorn Creek watersheds.
— The budget increases the contribution to the preserves’ real estate fund, positioning the district to jump on the purchase of ecologically important land that might come up for sale. “We are prepared if and when larger properties reach the market, in a way that hasn’t been the case,” Preckwinkle said.
The entire proposed 2024 budget is available to review online.
A public budget hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 26, Cook County Building, Board Room, 118 N. Clark St.