Lake County Forest Preserves seeks new way to fund growth
The Lake County Forest Preserve District has rebooted an effort to amend state law in order to ask voter permission for a tax increase to operate and maintain future projects.
As proposed, the district wants to change the Downstate Forest Preserve Act to raise the ceilings of tax rates in its two main operating funds, general corporate and land development.
Raising those ceilings would provide flexibility in raising revenue, district officials say.
If signed into law, the new maximum rates would make it practical for the district to ask taxpayers via referendum for more money than currently is allowed, officials say.
In recent years, because the annual levy can increase a limited amount, tax rates have increased as property values have dropped.
With some exceptions, the amount of a tax levy increase in a given year is limited by the 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
The district could ask the voters for more. But even if they approved, the maximum rate in the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act would not allow the tax levy to rise, meaning the district couldn't collect.
Amending the act would remove that barrier, district officials say.
"It allows the forest preserves to ask the voters, 'What do you want?'," said Commissioner Jennifer Clark, who heads the forest board's legislative committee.
Officials say existing facilities can be operated and maintained at the current standard for the foreseeable future. But the district is limited from doing more because of revenue constraints.
That means making critical trail connections or providing public access to land-banked preserves, for example, are on the back burner until more revenue is available.
"We just can't add to the pile without taking something off," said Mike Tully, chief operations officer.
The forest board in April 2019 authorized an initiative to change state law, a lengthy process involving several steps.
Legislation to amend the act was introduced by state Sen. Melinda Bush, a former Lake County Board member/forest preserve commissioner from Grayslake. But the pandemic intervened and the proposal hasn't been brought to a vote.
In the interim, visits to forest preserves jumped 70%. Interest has remained higher than average.
"A lot of folks discovered us (during the pandemic) and they're staying with us," Tully said.
That has increased pressure for funding to pursue strategic plans and act on opportunities that could be lost to development, Clark said.
Forest preserve officials contend changing the state law would not equate to a tax increase but give them the ability to let voters decide.
"When I explain it to people, they're very supportive," Clark said. "We should be able to ask."
Since 1993, voters have approved four bond referendums totaling $355 million and the district has expanded to about 31,000 acres. In each case about two-thirds of those voting supported the measure. However, bond funds can't be used for operating expenses.
"People overwhelmingly support the forest preserves. They appreciate what we do," Clark said.
Her committee last week hosted a special meeting at the Independence Grove visitor's center to make the case.
"The more people know about this it will become a priority for our legislators," Clark said.
However, that could be a tough sell.
State Rep. Dan Didech of Buffalo Grove, the 59th District representative who was among seven legislators at the meeting. said he wouldn't support the measure in its current form.
"Any additional funding to the forest preserve needs to be targeted toward actual needs, and cannot just be an open-ended increased financial burden on property owners," he said Friday.
State Rep. Joyce Mason of Gurnee, the 61st District representative, said the forest preserves are a great asset but officials haven't made the case for opening the door to higher property taxes.
"They haven't identified any specific needs for additional funding and therefore it's not something I can support right now," she said.