November 8, 2018
Organization also raises concerns about future revenue shortfalls
(CHICAGO) In an analysis released today, the Civic Federation announced its support for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s full proposed FY2019 Executive Budget Recommendation of $204.8 million. The full analysis is available here.
As detailed in the report, the District has worked to control costs in recent years by eliminating personnel positions and outsourcing non-critical activities. The District has additionally focused on increasing earned revenue, such as fees and permits. With few other revenue options available as a non-home rule government, the Civic Federation is supportive of the District’s proposal to moderately increase its annual property tax levy because it is balanced by the aforementioned efficiencies.
However, the District finds itself in a challenging fiscal position. Moving forward, it must identify a funding source and acquire legal authorization to increase pension contributions by $10 million annually. The District also needs to find a resource large enough to make headway on the Next Century Conservation Plan, which is estimated to cost $2 billion over 25 years. Meanwhile, there is a capital project backlog of $130 million, $30 million of which is needed for urgent repairs. The District plans to issue $8 million in long-term debt to fund capital projects, which will not cover even the most pressing needs. The only way for the District to increase its property tax revenue beyond tax caps is through a change in State law or a referendum.
“The Forest Preserve District is rightfully sounding the alarm on severe fiscal challenges that cannot be put off any longer,” said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. “Absent increased revenue, the District is saying that painful cuts will have to be made that endanger the vital conservation and recreation work central to its mission. Through continued candor, the District has an opportunity to begin a productive and honest dialogue about possible solutions.”
Recognizing that the Forest Preserve District is out of easy options, the Civic Federation offers some recommendations for measures that may be seen as controversial but could cut costs while preserving the core mission of land preservation. The District should consider reducing its administrative office space by operating out of a single administrative office rather than both an office in the Chicago Loop and general headquarters in River Forest. The Civic Federation also believes the District should restructure its police force to focus primarily on land protection and formally outsource emergency response to municipal police forces through intergovernmental agreements with nearby municipalities.
Finally, the Civic Federation has long recommended that the District work with the Illinois General Assembly to establish a separate governing board from that of Cook County because commissioners’ attention and meeting availability is often consumed by the extraordinary demands of the County’s many needs. In the absence of this reform, the District should consider merging with governments with which its mission and purpose are better aligned, such as forest preserve districts in the collar counties of Northeastern Illinois.
“Not only is the Forest Preserve District a distinct governmental body, but its mission is often in conflict with the economic development issues championed by the Cook County Board. It deserves a governance structure that can devote undivided attention to the essential services it provides,” said Msall.