The last time the leaders of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District asked for a property-tax increase was in 2008, just as the housing bubble was bursting and an international banking crisis was underway.
That property-tax increase was
shot down by county voters, 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent. Another tax increase on the ballot at that time — one that would impose a 1 percent countywide sales tax for school improvements — also failed, but by only 262 votes out of almost 77,000 cast.
Eventually, the school sales tax passed.
But guess who’s back again 12 years later — now amid a global pandemic that has closed businesses and schools, raised the unemployment rate and cut household incomes — asking for a property-tax increase?
Talk about bad timing, again.
“There’s never going to be a perfect time to take a referendum question to the voters. Anyone who’s done it will tell you that,” said Mary Ellen Wuellner, executive director of the forest preserve district, which includes six major sites and more than 4,000 acres of open space.
“You see national figures that park usage is up something like 50 percent because of the pandemic,” she said. “People in April were so sick of being cooped up inside with their kids because of the pandemic that when I looked out my office window at Lake of the Woods, I was concerned about social distancing. So I feel people have discovered us, people who hadn’t been here before. In a weird way, we have this visibility now that has come up because of the pandemic.”
The forest preserve district’s board of directors, in an unusual outdoor meeting Thursday night at Lake of the Woods, voted unanimously to ask voters in the Nov. 3 general election to approve a property-tax increase of 1.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in order to maintain facilities and services.
If approved, it would be the first voter-endorsed tax increase in the district’s 72-year history. It would cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000 about $16 a year or the owner of a $100,000 home about $5.33 annually.
Wuellner said the forest preserve district board has discussed the need for a tax increase since the 2008 vote failed.
“It was part of my interview when I came on board three years ago,” she said. “The board said, ‘We know we need to do this. This is part of what we want you do to as executive director.’”
Sarah Livesay, vice president of the board, said it’s been an item of discussion since she was appointed eight years ago.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time. We’re just so ready. We’ve done all our homework. This is not something that came about lightly,” Livesay said. “We were talking about messaging and getting organized and then COVID came.”
“But then we decided that we couldn’t just stop,” said board member Bobbie Herakovich.
“And there’s so many more people who are out there now, using the forest preserves. The justification is there,” said board President Andrew Kerins.
Livesay said the board more seriously discussed the need for a property-tax increase, which would take its rate to about 10.33 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, since hiring Wuellner.
“There is this great frustration — the whole world is in frustration now — but we have done our homework,” she said. “And then you get to the conversation about whether to move ahead. We are not blind to what is going on in the world. But our job as commissioners is to protect these assets, the natural landscape assets and the infrastructure assets.
“Champaign County constituents own those. Our job is to take care of those, but we are at a point where we have to call this to the attention of the taxpayers.”
The about $700,000 more a year that the tax increase would yield would be used for a $4 million list of capital projects, including repairs to the covered bridge at Lake of the Woods; spillway and dam rehabilitation at Homer Lake and Lake of the Woods; and a problematic pond and swimming beach at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve near Penfield that is leaking water but collecting more goose feces.
Because the tax increase has been under discussion for so long, the privately funded Forest Preserve Friends Foundation has amassed about $25,000 that can be used in a campaign for it, Herakovich said.
Door-to-door campaigning in a pandemic is out, so the funds will be spent on mailers, yard signs, social media, and TV and radio advertising.
Advocates also hope to attend online meetings of groups and organizations over the next three months, Livesay said.
“We’re going to be on Zoom at a lot of Rotary meetings and others,” she said. “Every league, every meeting, every club.”
Board member Scott Hays, who ran (and lost) as the Democratic candidate for county clerk in 2014, said he’s entering this effort with optimism.
“I’m no stranger to electoral politics. I’ve been on a lot of losing campaigns. This is the best one I’ve ever been on,” he said. “We’ve got some excellent support and a great cause, so I’m looking forward to taking this one on.”