October 18, 2022
In a position statement released yesterday, the Civic Federation announced it supports passage of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s (FPDCC) property tax extension limitation law (PTELL) referendum that will be on the November 8 election ballot for voters in Cook County. The referendum question asks Cook County voters whether the Forest Preserve District’s property tax limiting rate should by increased by 0.025% in property tax levy year 2022, to a total rate of 0.076% of the equalized assessed value of taxable property in tax year 2022. This is estimated to generate approximately $40 million in additional property tax revenue for the District annually. The District’s total property tax revenue in FY2022 was just over $100 million, a portion of which is shared with the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden and a portion of which is not subject to tax caps.
The Civic Federation supports the property tax increase for the Forest Preserves based on a number of factors including the administration’s strong leadership and management, demonstrated fiscal restraint, limited options for other revenue alternatives and the District’s clearly laid plans for how additional property tax funds would be used.
Over the last decade, the Forest Preserve District’s finances have improved significantly, thanks to strong management from its leadership team headed by General Superintendent Arnold Randall with support from Cook County Forest Preserve District Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the Board of Commissioners. The District prioritized right-sizing its workforce, cut expenditures where possible, raised non-property tax revenues through user fees and grew its budgetary reserves.
As a non-home rule unit of government separate from Cook County, the Forest Preserve District does not have access to many sources of revenue and is limited by property tax caps. The District is also limited in what it can contribute to its declining pension fund, which is projected to go insolvent in 2044 if the state-imposed funding formula is not changed. Additionally, its limited resources mean the District has a growing backlog of capital and restoration needs.
The Federation holds that the District has both demonstrated its need for an infusion of revenue and has a history of responsibly managing its existing funds. The amount of the request is also not excessive in the context of the billions of property taxes paid countywide annually. The Forest Preserve District makes up less than 1% of the property tax bills paid by Cook County property owners. If the referendum passes, the increase would be about $20 more annually for the owner of a $300,000 home.
A government asking voters to increase their own taxes must have a strong plan for how they will use the funds. In addition to demonstrating need and ability to effectively manage increased revenues, the District has expressed a sound and transparent plan for how to use the $40 million boost in funding. The majority of the increased revenues will be dedicated to the following priorities:
- Funding the District’s pensions at an actuarially sound level;
- Addressing deferred maintenance;
- Funding capital needs, including at the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden;
- Expanding restoration work; and
- Acquiring more natural lands.
The funding will help the District advance the goals outlined in its Next Century Conservation Plan and will benefit from the additional layer of citizen accountability provided by the Conservation and Policy Council. The Council advises the President, Board of Commissioners and General Superintendent and engages in annual strategic planning around the Plan’s implementation.
The Federation continues to hold the position that the Forest Preserves would do better with a separately elected Board of Commissioners instead of sharing a double-duty board with Cook County. However, for all of the reasons outlined above, the Federation believes the Forest Preserve District of Cook County has made a convincing case that it both needs and deserves additional funds from taxpayers.
For additional information on property tax extension limitation law referenda and how they work, see this blog post: What is a PTELL Referendum and How Does it Work?