Kane forest preserve may raise tax levy for first time in 5 years

An expected tax break for Kane County residents may shrink under a new proposal favored by some forest preserve district commissioners Tuesday.

The plan, which received a favorable committee vote, would see commissioners unfreeze the taxing body's operating levy for the first time in five years.

Tuesday's vote is reminiscent of the tax levy debate commissioners had last year. In 2015, early votes by commissioners indicated the levy would increase. But the final vote kept a tax freeze in place for a fourth consecutive year.

There are reasons to believe this year will be different.

For one, the district faces greater financial pressure heading into 2017. District staff members know golf course income will fall by $60,000. There's also another expected loss of up to $200,000 in state funding.

And the income from renting land in the preserves to local farmers will also probably fall because of low market prices for corn and soy beans.

Second, the district also just refinanced some debt that will save taxpayers $1.2 million. The levy increase the majority of commissioners supported Tuesday would net only about $99,000 in new income for the district. That means, no matter what happens to the operating levy, taxpayers will still pay less money to the district overall.

The $99,000 operating levy increase would work to shrink the $1.2 million savings from the debt refinancing to about $1.1 million.

Still, raising the operating levy means taxpayers will not see their tax bills shrink as much as they would if commissioners maintained a freeze for a fifth year. Forest preserve officials have not yet calculated what the operating levy increase would mean to the average taxpayer.

Last year, the difference to an average taxpayer was less than 50 cents between keeping the freeze in place and the increase contemplated by commissioners.

In the final vote on the 2016 tax levy, commissioners who viewed that reduction in taxpayer savings as a tax increase prevailed. On Tuesday, commissioners in favor of raising the 2017 operating levy increase billed it as a win for taxpayers.

"You have the ability to hold the line on the rate and ask the new construction growth to participate in a more meaningful way," said Commissioner Mark Davoust. "Even if we choose (the largest levy increase), we have a tax bill that will arrive for everybody that will reflect an overall decrease."

Commissioner John Hoscheit said public support for creating new preserves comes with added and ongoing operating expenses.

"As we get more property, we have more to maintain, more man hours, more operating costs," Hoscheit said. "We opened three new, significant facilities with the proceeds from the last referendum. Now we have to maintain them to the standard that the public desires."

There is some division among the commissioners about how much the operating levy should increase. The current proposal has two parts.

Commissioners could limit the increase, and give taxpayers more savings, by factoring in only new construction. That would net the district $54,000 in new income.

But the majority of commissioners Tuesday also supported a second part that would increase the levy by the maximum allowed under the state's tax cap. That cap limits the district, in this case, to a levy increase of 0.7 percent, which reflects the Consumer Price Index adjustment for 2017.

Adding that part of the increase puts another $45,000 in district coffers for a total of $99,000.

Whatever happens with the forest preserve district's levy may serve as foreshadowing for any increase that comes to the county's property tax levy. Kane County Forest Preserve District commissioners also serve as Kane County Board members. The county board's finance committee meets Wednesday morning.

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