Lake County Forest Preserve budget: Spending down, slight tax cut planned

  • Habitat restoration, like this project to restore 180 acres of former farm fields at the Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside, is among the missions of the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

    Habitat restoration, like this project to restore 180 acres of former farm fields at the Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside, is among the missions of the Lake County Forest Preserve District. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/14/2021 5:29 PM

The Lake County Forest Preserve District's $63.6 million 2022 budget is balanced and includes a slight property tax cut but is quiet in terms of big building projects or land acquisitions.

Approved by forest preserve commissioners this week, the total budget is nearly 26% lower than the previous spending plan. But that decrease is deceptive and doesn't equate to wholesale cuts in employees or operations.

 

Instead, the $22.1 million drop in spending is due to reductions in capital expenditures and debt payments. Projects in the current budget are either complete or in progress, and bond refinancing saved more than $800,000.

"Our (voter-approved) land acquisition dollars are gone and a lot of the big building projects were started in prior years, so there's nothing hugely substantial like that in this budget," said Steve Neaman, finance director.

Instead, the district is holding the line on spending and pushing harder for grants, donations, cost-sharing opportunities and revenue other than property taxes.

The district plans to provide programs and services to advance its mission, which includes restoring habitats and providing trails and facilities, while reducing the amount being asked of taxpayers.

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For 2022, the district has budgeted about $49 million in property tax revenue, a decrease of $368,260 or 0.74% from the current budget. For perspective, the 2021 levy is $11.3 million less, or 19% below the levy in 2009. About 2% of an average tax bill goes to the forest preserve district.

"We are doing much more with less as we are facing a really challenging fiscal reality," said forest Commissioner John Wasik of Grayslake.

Budgeted operating expenses next year are up 1.69% or $594,234. Increases in commodities and contractual services account for most of that, Neaman said.

According to Neaman, more than $2.7 million in new program requests were made for the 2022 budget. But because of uncertainty created by the pandemic, tax levy restrictions and the impact of minimum wage increases, only $860,000 was funded, and that was from savings in other areas.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Additions include interior improvements at ThunderHawk Golf Club banquet facilities, a concrete floor at one of the boat storage buildings at the Fox River Marina to increase storage, and removal of trees along the Des Plaines River damaged in past years by the emerald ash borer.

Salaries increased 3%, but employee costs are up only slightly in 2022 because of turnover and lower salaries of new hires. Next year, the equivalent of 2.82 full-time employees split over three departments will be hired.

Since 2009, nearly 37 positions or about 12% of the workforce has been eliminated, according to the district.

The district continues to experience large increases in forest preserve use, golf course play, activity at the Fox River marina and heavy use of dog exercise areas.

"A lot more people discovered us during the lockdowns," Neaman said. "They liked what they saw and are continuing to come back." Revenues this year are $1 million above the budget and are being closely tracked approaching 2022.

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