In the Chicago area, it’s rare to find an arm of government that hums without a hitch when it comes to both its mission and the fiscal stewardship needed to achieve its goals.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District, headquartered in River Forest, is one of those entities.
It’s hard to find any fault with how the district maintains its trails and nearly 70,000 acres of forests and green expanses. The district helps with the upkeep at two of the Chicago area’s marquee amenities, the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe and Brookfield Zoo, located in Brookfield. And it has consistently proven to be a sound manager of taxpayer dollars — it oversees one of the better-funded employee pension funds, with funding at about 59%.
Now the district needs a bit of help from taxpayers.
On the Nov. 8 general election ballot will be a referendum that asks voters to approve a modest property tax increase. District officials say the tax hike would cost property owners roughly $1.50 more each month, and generate about $40 million yearly.
Given how much property tax increases have battered Chicago area residents in recent years, every governmental ask for even more requires a long, hard look. In this case, however, the request is more than warranted.
The district’s preserves provide exactly the salve metro Chicago residents need after being pummeled by the pandemic, inflation and the divisive toxicity of today’s politics. A getaway to the sprawling Caldwell Woods preserve on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a mountain bike ride at the Deer Grove preserve in Palatine or a get-the-blood-pumping workout on the stairs at Swallow Cliff Woods near southwest suburban Palos Park can supply the ideal remedy, if at least for a sun-dappled afternoon.
A good business case can be made for these amenities. Chicago competes for young talent with many cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, located in proximity to inspiring recreational resources. We cannot add mountains or redwoods, but our forest preserves make a major contribution to what we have to offer those workers and their families on weekends.
The respite that Cook County’s forest preserves provide from maddening traffic jams and workday stress can be easily taken for granted. But those preserves don’t maintain themselves. Pavilion shelter roofs eventually must be replaced, every so often parking lots need repaving and woodlands at some point require a degree of restoration, particularly to clear invasive brush.
Money from the tax hike would also pay for the expansion of woodlands. The district would buy 2,700 undeveloped acres, with a large chunk of it in southeast Cook County. We think that’s a critical component to the referendum. Every metropolitan region needs a healthy, robust balance between the concrete and asphalt that form skylines and neighborhoods and the verdant, calming greenery that makes up parkland and forest. When the ratio skews too far toward glass and steel, a metro region’s livability plummets.
Another important element of the referendum: The district is trying to head off bigger headaches down the road with an employee pension shortfall it’s coping with now. Revenue from the tax increase would resolve that gap.
Chicagoans, and Illinoisans in general, have seen what happens when governments ignore metastasizing pension crises. For years, Springfield put off its pension woes, and now the problem has ballooned to roughly $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The forest preserve district is trying to close its pension shortfall before it gets unmanageable, which is the kind of fiscal responsibility taxpayers like to see but rarely do.
Governments in metro Chicago and across Illinois face an uphill battle convincing voters to back a tax hike, largely because those governments have a history of over-spending and mismanaging hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
The forest preserve district, however, has made a strong case for its tax hike request. The amount is far from onerous, the district has laid out why it needs the money and how it will be used, and it has shown in the past that it intelligently manages the revenue it gets from taxpayers.
This is the rare tax hike that would be money well-spent.