Kane County residents are on the verge of owing more money to the forest preserve district next year as a panel of commissioners backed a property tax levy increase Friday.
And with commissioners also serving as Kane County Board members, the stage is set for a budget comparison between the two taxing bodies.
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Forest preserve commissioners are able to raise the property tax levy by up to 1.7 percent plus the value of any new property in the taxing area. Activating that maximum increase would bring in about $150,000 in new income. The additional money would fund 2 percent raises for district staff.
The impact to the owner of a home with a $225,000 market value would be an increase of 83 cents in the amount of property taxes paid to the district. While that's less the cost of a basic McDonald's hamburger, forest preserve commissioners said they are aware of how the economy has made any property tax increase a sensitive issue for local residents.
"My voters in my district have said, 'Please hold the line on taxes,' " Commissioner Brian Pollock said. "What we're saying here is we don't think they'll vote for this, so we'll vote to do this for them."
District President John Hoscheit said now is the time to raise the property tax levy because it will free up operational money to maintain all the new land holdings the district acquired through the most recent referendum.
That includes making the dormant Brunner Forest Preserve accessible to the public.
The district also recently completed a bond refinancing that will reduce money taxpayers pay to the district to help pay off its bond debt.
The savings would roughly cancel out the increased price of operations on the tax bill.
But there is a political price for commissioners to pay as well, as they also serve as Kane County Board members.
Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen has pledged to keep the county's portion of the property tax levy flat. If he is successful, taxpayers may view the forest preserve's increase with a particularly negative view.
Hoscheit said such a perception would be unfair.
"What the public wants to know is are you cutting expenditures," Hoscheit said.
In that light, the forest preserve's proposed budget increases expenditures by 1.5 percent, less than the rate of inflation.
In contrast, the county's budget increases spending by at least 4 percent, and probably more once union contracts are settled.
However, the county's increased spending will be covered by better income from sales and incomes taxes plus spending down some of the county's savings.
"We do not have the luxury of a sales tax or income tax at the forest preserve district," Hoscheit said. "One approach we could take here is to say we're going to include the extra $150,000 of spending and pay for it out of our fund balance. But given our operations here, I don't think that's prudent."
But there may be another way. Pollock and some other commissioners opposed to the forest preserve's property tax levy increase said a better way to pull in more money would be increasing the fees the district charges farmers to grow crops on district land.
A 10 percent increase of those fees would net about $120,000. A corresponding increase of the fees charged to rent shelters in the district would net another $7,000. That would leave only another $23,000 to find for a full $150,000.
Hoscheit said commissioners will likely explore those options as well, but it won't happen before a vote on the 2014 budget. That vote will include the $150,000 tax levy increase and occur next Tuesday.