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posted: 4/5/2013 5:30 AM

Lake County forest preserve committee recommends how to use surplus

Lake forest preserve committee recommends how to use surplus

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Taxpayers could see slight relief as the Lake County Forest Preserve District decides how to spend a $1.6 million surplus.

A recommendation Thursday by the forest board's finance and administrative committee would use $1.1 million of the surplus to pay down debt in equal installments during the next two years. The remaining $535,000 that had been generated in interest would be used for projects, such as solar gates and other measures designed to reduce operating costs.

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"To me, this feels like a compromise," said Sandra Hart of Lake Bluff, a committee member and freshman commissioner, who voted for the measure.

Hart said she has heard from constituents who would like to see the entire amount spent to improve facilities, but she also learned while going door to door during the campaign that tax relief was a priority for residents.

Majority votes in other committees earlier this week were to use the full amount for projects, saying owners of a home valued at $200,000 would prefer having improved facilities rather than the equivalent of $2 per year that would not be collected in taxes.

The finance committee's 5-2 recommendation is what the full board will consider at its regular meeting Tuesday. The recommended fund split would amount to about $1.30 less for each homeowner needed for the levy in 2014 and 2015.

The finance committee didn't have information regarding the interest portion of the surplus during its last discussion.

"We're looking at the long-term financial health of the district," said committee member Diana O'Kelly of Mundelein. "That ($1.1 million) was money that was collected. We felt with the economic times, let's put it toward the debt."

The surplus became available when a 2003 bond issue was retired. The district each year levies enough in taxes to pay principal and interest on bonds, but the county adds a contingency. What isn't used is set aside in a special fund that draws interest.

In recent years, such debt service surpluses have been used for land acquisition, projects or a combination.

This time, the possibility of applying the surplus to existing debt was raised by Commissioner Tom Weber of Lake Villa. A legal opinion said it was possible, and the subject since has received thorough discussion.

"I don't look at it as $4 (per taxpayer). I look at it as $1.1 million from our debt," said Weber, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting. He and Commissioner Steven Mandel of Highland Park were on the short end of a 4-2 vote Monday by the land preservation and acquisition committee to apply the entire amount to debt.

Weber said it's "always better to compromise and get something than stick to your guns and get nothing."

He praised the leadership of forest board President Ann Maine, adding he was impressed with how an issue raised by a new board member received ample attention.

Commissioner Pat Carey of Grayslake, who chairs the finance committee, voted against dividing the surplus, saying the district will be challenged financially in coming years because of decreasing property values and various tax funds at allowable limits.

Using the entire surplus for projects is "smart business," she added.

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