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updated: 4/2/2013 5:00 AM

Forest board must decide whether to give $4 rebates

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Is it better for a public body to rebate even a small amount of surplus money to taxpayers, or plow it back into the product? That's the question facing Lake County Forest Preserve District commissioners, who have $1.6 million to dispense in some fashion and are working to determine how that should be done.

"In the end, it comes down to a philosophical point of view," said Ann Maine, forest board president.

Monday, an apparent majority of commissioners favored using the money for capital improvements, such as adding trails to a forest preserve, rather than rebating the savings -- $4 over two years -- to taxpayers.

The finance and administration committee is expected to consider the matter Thursday. Whatever option that committee chooses as the recommendation will be voted on April 9 by the full board.

While some board members said any rebate makes a fiscal statement, others said the savings wouldn't make a difference to an individual in light of the desire for improvements to forest district holdings and the number of projects on the list.

That give-and-take played out during a meeting of the board's land preservation and acquisition committee, one of four that have considered or will consider how to proceed. Maine and commissioners Steve Carlson and Craig Taylor were non-committee members who contributed to a spirited discussion that ended with a 4-2 recommendation to use the money for improvements.

"The point is there has to be good business practices and we have to set an example," said committee member Tom Weber, a freshman commissioner from Lake Villa, who with Steven Mandel of Highland Park was in the minority.

"We have to be cautious about being shortsighted," countered committee member Bonnie Thomson Carter. The 16-year board veteran from Ingleside said the overwhelming public sentiment is to buy and protect more land and improve facilities.

"I just don't see the value in that (abatement). I don't think that's what the general public wants to see, not for $2, not for $4," she added.

Every year, the district levies a property tax to pay for bonds and interest. Lake County adds 1 percent to 2 percent more than needed as a contingency against delinquent and uncollectable taxes, said Stephen Neaman, the district's finance director. Any extra is kept in a separate debt service fund and gains interest.

When the 2003 series of bonds was retired, the surplus stood at more than $1.6 million, with $535,000 of that amount generated as interest. In past years, surpluses were designated for land acquisition or capital improvements.

Earlier this year, Weber questioned whether it could be used to pay outstanding debt. That could be done, commissioners learned, by applying the surplus to the annual debt service tax levy. In this instance, the owner of a $200,000 house would pay $4 less over two years, according to the district.

"This is not easy to do," Mandel said. "You've just got to do what you think is right." He maintained that if all taxing bodies followed suit, savings to taxpayers would increase.

"Why are we here?" Carlson asked before the vote.

"There are many things we could do with this money that won't get done now or for the foreseeable future," he added. "The biggest complaint we get is we don't open the facilities we have. The easy thing to do is to give everybody back $4. The tough thing to do is to do our jobs."

The decision was to apply all the surplus to capital improvements. The board's planning and restoration committee agreed Monday with a 6-0 vote.

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