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Cook County mulls ways to pay forest bonds
Tax hike hinted as possible solution

Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Special to suffredin.org
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Environmental groups and a budget watchdog called on officials from the Cook County Forest Preserve District Monday to explain how they plan to pay off up to $100 million in bonded debt that soon is expected to be issued.

The groups agreed that the district needs the money to make long-neglected capital improvements.

Yet, they said the bond issue should be coordinated with the 2005 budget process and a long-term plan for using the money.

"The proposed use of funds from the forthcoming bond issue is so general that it resembles a bear reaching into the honey pot," said Charles Schwartz, vice chairman of Friends of the Parks, at a public hearing Monday. "This lack of specificity reduces the ability to monitor how these millions of dollars will be spent."

District Board President John Stroger said after the hearing that he did not know whether a property-tax increase would be necessary to pay the bonded debt. It's possible, he said, that the budget could be cut enough to pay the debt without raising taxes.

Stroger could not give a time frame for when he would make public his plan for paying off the bonds, which the board is scheduled to vote on Oct. 6.

But at the meeting Stroger hinted at a tax hike when he said: "I can't guarantee that there won't be a slight tax increase to pay these bonds off because that would be an outright lie."

Stroger has yet to unveil his 2005 budget. The fiscal year begins Jan. 1.

The General Assembly passed legislation allowing bonds to be issued outside the district's existing tax-capped authority.

Of the $100 million, $50 million would go toward district projects, and the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden each would get $25 million.

The zoo and the garden sit on forest preserve property and receive property tax dollars annually from the district.

At those facilities, the money would pay for a wide range of projects, from renovation of the education building at the botanic garden to replacing the deck on the bridge over Salt Creek at the zoo.

The district has developed a general list of possible projects that could be completed with its $50 million, but some criticized the administration for not spelling out a detailed spending plan.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a business-oriented tax watchdog, said the district is proposing to spend millions without a long-term plan and before releasing its 2005 budget.

"We disagree with both of these actions because they fail to provide the public with full and accurate information about how millions of taxpayer dollars will be budgeted and spent," Msall said in a statement.

 

 



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