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County Forest Preserve says tax referendum is “not a partisan issue”

Onix Nava / For CU-CitizenAccess

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District is a week away from learning if voters will support its plea for an increase in taxes to support catching up on more than $4 million in backlogged capital projects.

The Forest Preserve District manages and maintains 169 buildings and recreational facilities, 3,919 acres of green space and programs based on a 1980 budget, according to its 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

“We have 4,000 acres of land now, not the 140 acres we started with back in 1948, but we haven’t been able to adjust with the times for the amount of tax we get in,” said Sarah Livesay, the district’s board of commissioners vice president.

Currently, an average of 1% of the taxable property goes to support the district, about $240,000 annually. According to an analysis of district financial reports, over the past 5 years, this tax has been its greatest form of revenue, while it has had a total revenue and expenditure of about $5 million.

The referendum proposes an increased tax levy of 0.0160% to 0.1033%. The district decided not to increase its tax levy before a tax cap implementation in 1996.

If passed, a single-family residence with a $100,000 estimated market value would pay an additional $5.33 versus paying $29.10 annually to the district in tax. Thus, homeowners would pay $34.43 annually in the future.

Livesay said that although the district does “a great job at finding grants to continue their work, there are not grants out there to necessarily assist with infrastructure.”

According to analysis of district financial reports, revenue from grants and donations have increased by almost $400,000, from $100,620 in 2015 to $490,953 in 2018.

If the referendum passed, these increased tax funds would go toward land and facility maintenance at six preserves: Homer Lake, Lake of the Woods, Middle Fork River, River Bend, Sangamon River, and the Kickapoo Rail Trail. Changes include beach restoration, dam repair, roof and equipment replacement, trail updates and more.

The Champaign County Farm Bureau endorses the referendum this cycle. Brad Uken, the bureau’s manager said its governmental affairs committee and board of directors had presentations and good dialogues with the district leadership about the district’s needs.

Uken shared that the bureau supports the referendum because it has not been on the ballot in years and because money will be utilized for maintenance, not land acquisition. According to the district’s 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 86.5% of land acquisition since 2018 comes from outside sources, like grants and donations.

“We’ve talked about how wisely the forest preserve uses their resources over the last decade or so in comparison to other taxing bodies such as the state that we would argue maybe hasn’t used their funds as wisely as others have,” said Uken.

The District’s Livesay said, “I thoroughly enjoy this, driving around Champaign County and seeing all the yard signs.” 

She has seen yard signs that oppose or support the Fair Tax referendum on the same lawn as a yard sign that supports the district referendum. She has also seen pro-Trump yard signs next to signs that support the district referendum.

“And I love that because it shows me this is not a partisan issue,” she said. “This is a human issue, and that’s, what you know, we’ve been saying since day one.”

The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce has no position regarding the district referendum. Its public policy director, Madeline Herrman, wrote that the Chamber advocates for its members and the business community.

“We determine whether we take positions on an issue based on how it will impact our members and the business climate,” wrote Herrman.

This referendum has been in discussion since Livesay joined the board eight years ago. “We finally had our ducks in a row. We went and had polling done. We’ve been doing our research. And we found out that 2020 was going to be the year,” said Livesay,

Livesay explained it was most beneficial for the district to have the referendum on the ballot during a presidential campaign year to have maximum turnout.

“And gosh, darn it. But the year started and surprise, COVID and all these other things hit. And we had a really hard conversation as a board and said, it’s not about that,” said Livesay.

Preserve participation has increased by 50%, and that even Monday through Friday, preserves are visited by more people than on weekends. Livesay said this has put more pressure on district services, staff and infrastructure:

“It’s the perfect example of when times get tough, people go outside. Thank goodness, right? That’s why we’re there. But that means we have to keep up these assets for them,” she said, “And so it was time regardless of what was going on in the world.”

Livesay said a lack of capital funds will “definitely” impact staff in the long run due to shorter service hours and possible facility and preserve closures because of safety concerns. 

To date, the district has not had staff cuts or pay decrease due to the minimum wage increases effective since January 2020. 

A concern for 2021 was raised during the district’s Board of Commissioners Regular Meeting in August about pay compression when lower-paying position wages increase, as well as issues stemming from COVID-19. There have been staff shortages, particularly with the hiring of seasonal educators and site operations which stems from program and service cancellations.

“The board of commissioners has been very strong with supporting our staff and keeping up with cost of living increases and duty pay,” Livesay said. 

“We have a very mighty staff, a small, but mighty, and they’ve been able to do what we need to do,” said Livesay of the district’s approximate 60 full-time and part-time employees and summer seasonal staff that ranges over a hundred.

Onix Nava / For CU-CitizenAccess

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