Kane County Forest Preserve District leaders said a price tag of $30 million will never be a bigger deal than this April when the district asks for its fourth tax increase in the past 12 years.
If voters approve the tax increase they'll see the district grow by up to 2,000 acres. Such growth would place the district more on par with the open space enjoyed in neighboring counties. Will, McHenry, DuPage, Lake and Cook counties all tally more than 21,000 acres of forest preserve in their communities. Kane County has less than 19,000 acres.
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The key questions for many voting in the referendum will be if they can afford a forest preserve expansion and why they are being asked for more money in tight economic times. The tax increase would equal about $1.23 per month for a home with a market value of $300,000. That's about $14.76 per year more in property tax dollars to the forest preserve district from that homeowner.
District President John Hoscheit said now is the time to ask for such an increase because land is, basically, on sale. Officials realize it's a tough economic time for taxpayers, but land owners once asking $100,000 per acre are now willing to sell for $20,000 per acre, Hoscheit said.
"We have prices per acre that we've never seen before," Hoscheit said.
District officials wouldn't specifically name all the properties they covet. However, the largest available land mass is likely the more than 300 acres that used to be part of the Glenwood School for Boys and Girls campus in Campton Township. Hoscheit said if that land were developed into housing, it would likely trigger the need for another school to be built. Hoscheit said a school is a lifetime tax increase whereas the forest district's requested increase would be paid off in 20 years.
"Blocking a new school has been referred to as the ultimate tax cap," Hoscheit said.
District officials and volunteers said they have paid close attention to what taxpayers want it to do. For instance, the district already has the ability, right now, to borrow up to $10 million more in bonds for land acquisition without voter approval. District officials would rather receive voter permission.
"There's always this fear that government works behind closed door and doesn't take input," Hoscheit said. "That's not our track record."
The district's executive director, Monica Meyers, said its track record is having community meetings whenever a specific piece of land acquisition is on the table for a given area of the county. Meyers said those meetings will continue in any new land acquisitions.
That may mean quite a few meetings the next couple years. If the measure is approved, Hoscheit said, the district would likely spend the bulk of the $30 million tax increase within a year. After that, it will be up to the voters what comes next.
The district's master plan eyes a future of someday hitting the 55,000-acre cap on the amount of forest preserve land in any one county. But a population of 800,000 people in Kane County no longer seems to be in the cards for the year 2020, as once envisioned. The 2010 census showed Kane County with a population that topped 515,000, an increase of about 100,000 people from the last decade.
"If the public feels they are getting a good bang for their buck, and it's a wise investment, we'll continue the land acquisition process," Hoscheit said.
The tax increase question will appear on the April 5 ballot.