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Today I voted for the 2016 budget of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County that is essentially the same as last year. This budget is the best we can do now, but it is a budget that revels the structural weakness of the “Non-Home Rule” Cook County Forest Preserve District. Unlike Cook County which is a “Home Rule” government, the Forest Preserves can only raise operating funds through property taxes that are capped; fees from earned services i.e. camp ground rentals, golf fees; and fines from those abusing our public lands through unlawful acts. These sources of income are all limited and are not adequate to properly fund essential activities. This is the last year that a flat budget makes sense. Our duty as the largest preservation land owner in the State requires better resources.
This budget received positive comments through two public hearings with the strongest support coming from various citizens who use the Forests for recreation, restoration and educational activities. These citizens are the secret funding source of our Forest Preserves because they provide thousands of volunteers to augment our small staff. Our Master Stewards work with our staff to ensure essential land protection projects happen. Unfortunately, we are only able to perform these projects on a very small percentage of our nearly 70,000 acres.
This Budget provides:
Limited support and encouragement for our volunteers;
Limited resources for our staff;
Limited restoration opportunities for our land;
Limited strategies to acquire additional land;
Improvements in recreational opportunities; and
Expansion of intern opportunities.
This Centennial year of the Forest Preserve District has seen a dramatic increase in attendance at our Forest Preserves and a better public awareness of our mission to protect the land for future generations. This Budget is the first to have input from the Conservation Council appointed and approved last year. Lead by Chair Wendy Paulson, this Council is giving us the vision necessary to see what we need to do to protect and enhance the land. The Council’s volunteer members have called for further actions that are not funded in this budget.
The Budget continues our support of the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Brookfield Zoo, but at levels that have not increased in 20 years. These two jewels anchor our outreach and educational programming. Neither the Garden nor the Zoo can continue their level of excellence without increased funding. The need to develop plans to help the Garden and the Zoo expand their positive programming and to provide further opportunities to improve our land will require dynamic new ideas before next year’s budget.
Finally, this budget does not address the major governmental issue facing our state – pension payments. While the Forest Preserve pension fund is smaller than most other governments and is better managed, it still needs a strategy for future viability.
As I vote “yes” on this maintenance budget, I realize significant planning is necessary for the 2017 budget. If we don’t show bold leadership on the 2017 budget, we will fail those who created this Forest Preserve District and those who have the vision to see how to actively protect our land.