$2.1 million for dog park? Lake County forest officials scrutinize
In light of red ink in the Lake County Forest Preserve District's financial outlook, projects planned for the next five years are coming under increased scrutiny.
Paying for projects isn't at a critical juncture, but since revenues aren't expected to keep pace with spending, officials are being cautioned to use discretion in determining what should be included in the district's five-year capital improvement plan.
For example, is $2.1 million for a proposed dog exercise area at the Waukegan Savanna a justifiable expense? Or are there ways to trim the cost and still meet accessibility standards and provide other amenities for the popular attraction?
The answer to that and other questions involving a variety of projects will be determined in coming months as the annual budget process gets underway.
"We really have to re-examine the list. Do we really need this?" Commissioner Carol Calabresa, chairwoman of the land preservation and acquisition committee, asked Monday. "We have to get our priorities and do it right for our citizens."
Forest board President Ann Maine said projections show a $1.7 million deficit in the capital improvement budget for 2021-2022.
"We don't want to be looking at a plan where we're putting off difficult decisions for the future," she said. "There are going to need to be additional changes to occur."
Proposed changes to the upcoming five-year plan involve adjustments to 12 projects and the addition of five new ones.
One of the changes would add $450,000 to the original $1.6 million estimate for a dog exercise area at the 774-acre Waukegan Savanna in Wadsworth. The district sells about 6,000 annual permits for its dog exercise areas and last year took in $115,000 in daily fees.
The proposed Waukegan facility would be 26 acres, compared to 70 acres at the Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda. But a variety of features, such as shade areas, a paved trail system, and enclosures to house dogs while their owners use the restroom are included.
"It's really about providing a durable infrastructure because of the heavy use," said Randy Seebach, the district's director of planning and land preservation. The facilities are for people as well as dogs, he said.
"What we've found is the original concept of fencing off a farm field and opening it to the public doesn't work," Seebach said.
Commissioner Bonnie Thomson Carter acknowledged that the public "absolutely loves" the dog exercise areas but said she believes the proposed cost is too high.
"I'm sorry, I think this is like the Hilton ... not the Super 8," she said. "This just seems over the top."