Why the DuPage forest preserve board may ask voters for tax increase

DuPage County forest preserve commissioners are weighing whether to ask voters in November for a possible property tax increase to generate more than $17 million in additional annual revenue for the district.

The board is set to discuss a draft ballot question during a planning session Tuesday night. Under the proposal, the district would seek a tax increase that would cost the owner of a home valued at $308,500 roughly $36 annually.

“This is permanent. It would increase our opportunity to fully fund Willowbrook Wildlife Center and all the good work that goes on there,” Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said. “It would fund more for operations, and it would actually increase our capital because we do have capital needs that are being unmet, and so they’re getting paid with operational dollars at this time.”

Since 2006 — when voters last approved a referendum question — the district has grown by more than 600 acres of open space, added 30 miles of trails and restored 8,500 acres of land, plus 30 miles of rivers and streams.

“We’re going to keep moving on more clean air and clean water initiatives, and we’ll have an opportunity to actually buy some land with the monies that we can bring in,” Hebreard said.

There’s interest in nearly 250 acres of land, he said. Earlier this year, the family that owns Gladstone Ridge, a horse farm along Leask Lane near Wheaton, resumed talks with the district about making it part of the Danada Forest Preserve.

When asked about the site Monday, Hebreard said that he couldn’t comment on any specific property and that the district has been interested in the parcel in the past, adding that “I don’t think that interest is gone.”

Meanwhile, the district has completed 10 projects outlined in a long-range master plan, with another 15 underway. The district borrowed money by issuing bonds to fund an extensive overhaul of the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, renovations of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook and other work.

However, the district does not generate enough revenue to cover the full cost of operations, complete the master plan, acquire additional land and continue to offer programs and services residents expect, according to a board memo.

“Projections are that this would be a long-lasting opportunity to right-size our budget and keep moving through the master plan at a pace that we’ve been moving,” Hebreard said of the referendum proposal.

Currently, the district uses environmental fund balances to subsidize annual operations.

“Going forward, we don’t want to keep doing that,” Hebreard said. “We’d like to make sure that we have a much more sustainable practice to meet our budgetary needs.”