Kane Co. voters to decide on $50 million tax increase for forest district

The fate of a proposed $50 million tax increase for the forest preserve district is now in the hands of Kane County voters, commissioners decided Tuesday.

A measure to place a referendum question on the April ballot passed 19-3, with several commissioners saying the public has a right to decide how much they value open space.

"This vote today isn't about being either in favor of land acquisition or opposed to land acquisition," Commissioner Kurt Kojzarek said. "It's allowing the democratic process to take place and allowing our constituents a voice."

The forest preserve district is close to paying off the loan from a 1999 tax increase, at which point the district's portion of a resident's tax bill is expected to decline. The retirement of the debt, plus a small hike to the district's operating levy this year, would result in a $41.17 tax reduction for the owner of a $250,000 home.

If voters approve the referendum for space, the tax cut for that home would shrink by about $22 per year.

"This does offer an excellent opportunity for our community to support an investment in our future," Commissioner Philip Lewis said. "Open space has proved over many, many years to add to the quality of life of our community. This $50 million will do exactly that."

Commissioner T.R. Smith voted against the measure, saying he's received phone calls from numerous constituents concerned with the cost of both acquiring and maintaining more land. "A $50 million figure is exorbitant to many of them," he said.

Commissioners Douglas Scheflow and Jarett Sanchez also opposed the referendum.

While claiming he neither supports nor opposes the referendum, county board Chairman Chris Lauzen suggested commissioners consider how much money the forest preserve district will need to set aside for operational expenses so as to maintain a flat property tax levy in the next several years. If the referendum is approved, he cautioned, it would limit the district's ability to save money.

Commissioner John Hoscheit, an advocate for the tax increase, said it's the district's duty to continue investing in open space as long as residents continue supporting the process. The money from the tax increase would not be used for salaries, pensions and other operating costs, he said, but rather for paying off land the district permanently owns.

"Obviously we're all concerned about taxes and spending," he said. "But in my mind, spending is differentiated from investing."

Hoscheit said commissioners will meet with community leaders to determine a list of projects to be completed if the tax hike is approved. Commissioner Becky Gillam said she would like to use the money to buy land that would connect existing forest preserves to make communities more walkable.

A recent poll conducted by the Naperville-based Conservation Foundation showed about 58 percent of the 400 participants would support a $50 million referendum, foundation President Brook McDonald said.

"Your mandate is to preserve land and protect natural resources, and you decide the pace that happens," he said. "One way to determine the pace of accomplishing your mission is to go to the voters."

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