January 13, 2023
Following Cook County voters’ approval of a higher property tax levy for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC) via a referendum question on the November 2022 ballot, the Illinois General Assembly last week passed a law that will change the District’s funding schedule for its pension plan to an actuarially-sound 30-year plan with a 100% funding goal. It now awaits the Governor’s signature. Among other priorities, the increased annual funding of approximately $40.9 million approved by the voters will fund a nearly $10 million increase to the District’s contribution to its pension funds. The previous, inadequate statutory funding requirement was a property tax levy of 1.3 times what employees had contributed to the fund two years prior. The State-mandated multiplier funding requirement resulted in significant underfunding of the District’s pensions, which fell from over 100% funded on an actuarial basis in 1999 to 59.3% funded in 2021. The increased property tax revenue approved by voters will start to fund the 30-year plan in budget year 2024
State law requires the FPDCC to submit its annual property tax levy by the first Monday in December. The District was therefore required to submit its 2022 levy to the Cook County Clerk by December 5, 2022. The Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners approved amendments to the District’s FY2023 budget, including the increased levy approved by the voters and amendments to expenditures at a series of meetings on November 30, 2022. However, the amendments to spend the $40.9 million in additional property tax revenue and $556,853 in additional personal property replacement tax from the State of Illinois do not include a higher contribution to the pensions.
The Forest Preserve explained on its website that it cannot increase its pension contribution absent a change to State statute, which the District noted it was working with legislators to amend. Therefore, for FY2023 “the additional tax revenue from the referendum that in future years will be allocated as additional employer contributions to the Forest Preserves pension fund (currently $9.7 million annually) has been assigned elsewhere. These funds have been designated in FY2023 to high-priority initiatives in the other referendum-supported categories.” The allocation categories for the higher revenue are as follows:
- Ecological Restoration: $7,252,760
- Public Engagement and Programs: $2,754,216
- Public Amenities: $7,253,000
- Public Safety and Landscape Maintenance: $4,659,293
- Capital Investments: Fleet/Support Facilities: $5,380,000
- Brookfield Zoo Capital Maintenance: $3,880,000
- Chicago Botanic Garden Capital Maintenance: $2,328,000
- Administrative: $642,129
The structure for the new statutory pension funding schedule is the same as the one Cook County implemented via an intergovernmental agreement with its pension fund in 2015. The County had raised its sales tax by a percentage point, largely to provide increased funding to its pensions. Since FY2016, when the increase in the sales tax went into effect, the County has made a total of nearly $2.3 billion in supplemental pension payments. These payments have helped the fund reduce its unfunded liability by nearly a billion dollars and increased its actuarial funded ratio to 67.2% in FY2021 from 56.7% in FY2016. For more about the County pension fund, see the Civic Federation’s analysis of the FY2023 Cook County Recommended Budget.