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posted: 4/5/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Proposal for surplus forest funds a win-win

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Lake County Forest Preserve District commissioners have engaged in an interesting discussion this week over what to do with $1.6 million in surplus funds.

Interesting because the choice was to spend it on capital projects, such as trails or facilities at forest preserves, or to pay down debt -- a rebate to property taxpayers of $4 each over two years that wouldn't be enough for a picnic lunch for a family at one of the preserves.

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However, the district's finance committee has taken a more Solomon-like approach, recommending a compromise we endorse as an opportunity to send a compelling message.

When the full board meets Tuesday, it will consider a proposal to split that funding. The proposal would put $1.1 million of the surplus toward debt, resulting in a slight savings for homeowners for the 2014 and 2015 levies, and spend $535,000 in the interest earnings on measures to reduce operating costs.

We say commissioners should make a fiscal statement and be a government role model -- take the deal.

Why? Because the debate is in a county where property taxes consistently rank among the highest in the nation, and it comes at a time when many residents still struggle financially, and because people are wary about whether government and elected leaders look out for their best interests.

The issue centers on the property tax the district levies to pay for bonds and interest. Lake County adds 1 percent to 2 percent more than is needed as a contingency against delinquent and uncollectable taxes, officials said. Any extra is kept in a separate debt service fund and gains interest.

When 2003 bonds were retired, the surplus stood at $1.6 million, which includes $535,000 in interest. In the past, such funds were designated for land acquisition and capital improvements. This year, a commissioner asked about applying the surplus to the annual debt service tax levy.

Putting $1.1 million toward debt means the owner of a $200,000 house would pay about $2.60 less over two years.

This week's debate has offered compelling arguments on both sides and involved a county board that has received high marks for its fiscal operation.

Some board members cautioned about being shortsighted in using the surplus funds in a county where open space has traditionally been prized and where officials say they hear complaints about preserves that lack amenities.

Others talked about good business practices and the need to set an example.

What struck us was a comment by board member Steven Mandel of Highland Park, who told colleagues at a committee meeting that if all taxing bodies followed suit and rebated where possible, savings to taxpayers would increase.

As we see it, the proposed compromise is a show of respect for taxpayers, and it may even build some goodwill. That may be remembered in the future if the district seeks a tax increase referendum.

The proposed compromise is the wise choice because it makes a fiscal statement and sets a course that other governments should note.

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