Will County Forest Preserve Board considers $50 million bond sale

The Will County Forest Preserve District Board will vote next week on a proposal to issue up to $50 million in bonds to preserve land, expand trails, increase access to forest conservation, restore habitats and improve facilities.

Because the district is canceling bonds, the impact of the forest district line item on a Will County taxpayer is expected to decrease.

Forest district officials said the owner of a $300,000 home currently pays $116 to the forest preserve. If the bond issue is approved, the same homeowner would pay $95. If the bond issue is rejected, the homeowner would pay $86, county officials said.

“By 2024, we will be forgiving a significant amount of debt, so that portion of the levy will be reduced by approximately 60%,” said Executive Director Ralph Schultz. “At times like this in the past, the board has chosen to fund a continuation of the (capital improvement program) but still give property tax credit owners a tax break.”

Under the five-year, $50 million program, the district would use about $25 million to preserve between 1,000 and 1,250 acres of land; $13 million for trail access improvements and facility improvements; and $12 million for habitat reconstruction and natural area restoration, Schultz said.

The forest district board held a public hearing Thursday before recommending that the plan go to a vote at 9 a.m. June 13 at the Will County office complex, 302 N. Chicago St., Joliet.

Schultz and Deputy Director Tracy Chapman spent more than an hour of the public hearing reading about 200 emails from residents, the majority of which opposed the bond issue.

Residents said property taxes are too high, the district must operate within its current budget and seniors living on fixed incomes are being taxed out of their homes. Opponents also said the project was non-essential and unimportant and that too few people use the forest reserve.

About 15% of the emails were from residents supporting the plan, saying that preserving green space is important for future generations, that residents are reaping the mental and physical health benefits of being in nature and that it forest area makes Will County an attractive place to live and work. and play. Supporting emails said taxes would drop under the district’s $50 million capital improvement program because of expiring debt.

Board member Mark Revis, a Republican from Plainfield, said he took credit for the emails from residents in opposition.

“Property taxes are absolutely out of control,” Revis said. “They’re tired of things adding to their property tax bills.”

Revis said property taxes could fall further if the bonds are not sold. He said selling bonds is optional and does not affect the services the forest district provides. Residents have other ways to get outdoor recreation, he said.

Several other board members said they believed Revis misinterpreted the information given to residents.

“I just wish you could stop lying, causing fear, dysfunction (and) division online and let people write ‘I don’t want my taxes to go up’ when they are literally going down,” said board member Natalie Coleman , a Democrat from Plainfield.

Republican board member Julie Berkowicz of Naperville said the land the forest preserve would purchase prevents it from becoming a residential development that would place a burden on municipalities, roads, police, first responders and school districts, leading to higher taxes.

“When this bond passes, I will appreciate the fact that we will have a higher quality of life because our forestland has done a fantastic job,” Berkowicz said.

Board member Dan Butler, a Republican from Frankfort, said the forest preserve will benefit residents across the state.

“There are very few times when we have the opportunity to provide a service to our public that is actually provided to such a large portion of our public,” he said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m not a fiscal conservative because I’m going to support this bond. I think it is a sensible expenditure.”

Member Jim Richmond, a Republican from Mokena, said the forest preserve accounts for about 1.46% of property taxes, and the other taxing agencies are responsible for much of the tax increases residents have complained about.

“The other 98.5% did a lot of damage,” Richmond said.

The forest district has several projects within its capital improvement program, including adding connections to the DuPage River Trail with Naperville, Bolingbrook and the district’s Whalon Lake and Hidden Lakes and Hidden Oaks preserves. The district plans to partner with multiple municipalities and park districts on trail connections, including Naperville, Aurora, Plainfield and New Lenox.

The district would also improve the Plum Creek Nature Center in Beecher, which was last renovated in 2002.

Some of the areas earmarked for habitat reconstruction or natural restoration include 250 acres of the Riverview Farmstead in Naperville, 250 acres of the Jackson Creek Preserve in Green Garden Township and 200 acres of the Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve and 550 acres of Plum Valley Ravines in Crete. Local authority.

No new staff will be hired as part of the program, Schultz said.

Michelle Mullins is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.