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Cook forest preserve district looking at borrowing to buy more land

Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Byrne

The Cook County Forest Preserve District moved ahead today with a plan to borrow up to $70 million to buy more land and make repairs to buildings and picnic enclosures.

The massive new fund would be created by using $4 million in existing annual capital money to cover the cost of new bonds, Forest Preserve superintendent Arnold Randall said.

Property taxes will not be increased to cover the cost, Randall said.

Cook County commissioners, who double as the forest preserve board, agreed to advance the plan for further consideration, but not before debating whether borrowing money is the best course of action.

“We're trying to challenge our financial team to go beyond the box besides just debt issuance,” said Commissioner Elizabeth “Liz” Doody Gorman, R-Orland Park. “Because when you're going to issue $70 (million) to $75 million worth of bonds, you're going to end up paying anywhere upward from $110 to $120 million to pay it back.”

The district hopes to boost the pot of new money for acquisitions and construction to over $100 million by refinancing existing loans to reduce interest payments, Randall said.

“We're proposing as part of this new money that we would spend approximately 25 percent of that, or $25 million, towards land acquisition, which is a main mission of ours right now,” Randall told reporters after the meeting.

The county also is considering using the funding to help pay for renovations at Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Gardens, according to a district news release.

Also Wednesday, the Forest Preserve board approved tighter controls to the resident watchmen program.

The decades-old program, which provides housing in the forest preserves for county employees who are then supposed to keep an eye on things and report illegal activity, came under fire last year when one of the watchmen was charged with growing marijuana on forest preserve property.

Under the new standards, the county will conduct annual inspections of the 40 residences where the watchmen live, and the Forest Preserve superintendent will report to commissioners about the watchmen’s qualifications and activities.

The watchmen also will pay slightly more in rent to live in the on-site houses.

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