Cook County Forest Preserve panel warns of money woes ahead

By Kevin Beese Staff reporter

The Little Red Schoolhouse in Willowbrook is one of six nature centers in the Cook County Forest Preserve District. (Photo courtesy of Cook Co. Forest Dist.)

Cook County residents may be asked to support animals, gardens and open spaces come 2020.

County Forest Preserve commissioners say that a referendum in the 2020 general election seeking more tax dollars is definitely a possibility.

“We can only call the question in an election year,” Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the Chronicle. “Right now, we are looking at the 2020 general election.

He said educating residents on the Forest Preserve District’s financial needs will be vital for any potential referendum’s success.

“If we let them know what they money will be used for, I think we will get a good response,” Suffredin said.

He noted that in the 2018 Forest Preserve District budget alone $1 million is being taken away from the Chicago Botanic Gardens and Brookfield Zoo. The zoo will see its funding reduced $600,000; the gardens will lose $400,000 in funding. That money has been reallocated for county land restoration.

“This, along with other re-allocations allows the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, for the first time in its history, to direct $3.9 million toward land restoration from sustainable revenue sources in the construction and development fund as part of its annual budget recommendation,” according to an executive summary of the district’s 2018 budget.

Although the reductions are just 4 percent of the zoo’s and Botanic Gardens’ annual allocations, Suffredin said it is evidence that there is not enough money in the Forest Preserve District coffers to address all the needs.

Commissioners unanimously approved the Forest Preserve District’s 2018 budget at a special meeting last month. Absent from the meeting were commissioners Jerry Butler, Bridget Gainer, Jesus Garcia and Tim Schneider.

“The Forest Preserve District is facing serious issues,” Commissioner John Daley said prior to the budget’s passage. “We are on the road to improvement, but we have to recognize what’s ahead. I believe the voters would accept that we have serious issues.”

Cost-of-living adjustments for employees mandated through collective bargaining agreements and increased health-care costs will mean an additional $1.6 million for the district this year.

Coupled with the land restoration allocation, that created a $5.5 million shortfall in the Forest Preserve District budget.

The Forest Preserve District will fill that budget gap by freezing vacancies, reducing nonpersonnel costs, increasing earned revenue and capturing inflationary revenue from its tax levy, according to district officials.

District leaders also contend that in addition to increasing pressure being placed on the Forest Preserve’s operating budget, there are also urgent capital needs. Older facilities and an expansive network of parking lots and roadways throughout county forest preserves suffer from years of deferred maintenance, they state.

An estimated backlog of $30 million in deferred maintenance remains to be tackled, according to district officials.

Either later this year or in 2019, the district expects to request authority from commissioners to issue $8 million in capital bonds to fund capital improvements, such as roof repairs, boiler replacements and parking lot repairs.

In addition, the Forest Preserve District plans to expand a 2017 pilot program where pavement repairs were addressed in-house. District leaders say the in-house work has proven cost effective and will be expanded this year from one crew to two.

Despite being able to plug this year’s budget gap without layoffs, Suffredin said the Forest Preserve District will not continue to be so lucky.

“We do need to look at a referendum,” he said. “We’ve been very financially responsible for many years. We’ve made budget cuts. Now we are making cuts to the money we provide to the Botanic Gardens and the money we provide to the zoo. I believe the citizens would support us if we made our case clear.”





— Cook County Forest Preserve panel warns of money woes ahead —-