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Forest district ready to borrow now, ask la

Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Hey, taxpayers, the Cook County Forest Preserve District needs to borrow $100 million.

The district can't say exactly how each dollar will be spent or how it's going to pay it all back, but since it doesn't have to, why not sign the papers now and work out the details later?

Essentially, that is what President John Stroger asked of Cook County commissioners Monday. The commissioners, by all signs and statements made Monday, will probably do it next week.

Only one commissioner, Chicago Democrat Forrest Claypool, spoke out against authorizing the $100 million bond issuance for "capital improvements" across the forest preserves in Cook County.

The lack of opposition may have been tied to the fact that the preserves are in general disrepair, and several speakers at a Monday public hearing said the county could easily spend four times that amount getting them back in shape.

Exactly how the money will be spent hasn't been decided, though. A general guideline of possible projects - including a new boathouse at Busse Woods and a new Northwest Division headquarters in the Barrington area - was released, but there's no guarantee that's where the money will go.

"I can't guarantee that there won't be some slight tax increase to pay these bonds off," said Stroger. "That would be an outright lie."

Even if all the bond issuance came from new taxes, the cost per a $200,000 home owner - $2 to $4 more per year for 30 years - would be small enough to justify such a worthy project, said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat who has butted heads with Stroger in the past.

And don't kid yourself; it will all be paid for with new taxes, Suffredin said, something Stroger and his aides apparently weren't willing to concede.

But even though the details are scarce at this point, Suffredin is comfortable with authorizing the bond issuance at next week's Oct. 6 meeting because each individual purchase with that money will also have to come back before the board, Suffredin said.

And, Suffredin said, it's important to get the bonds issued before interest rates go up and cost taxpayers even more.

Not good enough, said Laurence J. Msall, president of the Civic Federation.

Spending almost double the annual forest preserve levy of $66 million deserves a line-item-budgeted, three-year plan for capital expenditures, not just a three-page sheet of possible projects, which make statute-mandated "public hearings" a farce, he contends.

"What kind of intelligent public response could you hope to get?" Msall said. "This raises questions as to the commitment (on the board's part) of sharing public information."

Ordinarily, the forest preserve would have to gain voter approval to issue these bonds, but a measure passed last session by the legislature allows an exception for forest preserves who had tax caps imposed when they were not yet at maximum debt levels.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the measure but was overridden by the legislature.



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