Is the Will County Forest District’s $50 million bond plan a tax increase or not?

Finance Comittee gives OK, full board votes next week.

Home owner Omar Kamara speaks out against a proposal to issue $50 million bonds for future land preservation and forest preserve improvements at the Forest Preserve District of Will County Finance Committee meeting at the Will County Office Building on Thursday June 6, 2024 in Joliet.

Plans for a $50 million bond that will allow the Forest Preserve District of Will County to add at least 1,000 acres moved forward Thursday, despite more than 150 emails voicing opposition being read during a public hearing.

The emails were spurred by social media postings from the one forest preserve commissioner who voted against the bonds at a committee meeting Thursday. But they also reflected the tax-weary sentiments voiced by the one resident who showed up at the public hearing to comment on the bond plan.

“I believe that borrowing more money will lead to more taxes,” Omar Kamara of Romeoville told the forest preserve board. “As I see the progression, I’m scared.”

Kamara pointed to the property tax bill on his house, which has grown from $5,665 in 2005 to $9,172 this year.

“I know that these programs are wonderful,” he said. “But if borrowing more money is going to lead to more taxes, you need to think about those of us who pay taxes.”

The bonds will cost the owner of a $300,000 house about $9 a year, according to the forest preserve district.

But the forest preserve property tax actually will go down even with the $50 million bond issue because previous bonds will be retired at the end of this year.

Lexi Gordon pushes her daughter Gia while her son Vinny rides his bike along a trail at the Forest Preserve District of Will County Rock Run Preserve on Thursday June 6, 2024 in Joliet.

According to the forest preserve, the owner of a $300,000 home now pays $116 in property taxes to the district. Even if the district moves ahead with the bond, that tax bill will fall to $95.

If the bond issue is not approved, the tax bill would fall to $86, which led to some debate over whether the plan amounts to tax increase or not.

Commissioner Frankie Pretzel, R-New Lenox, said he believed the bond plan was misunderstood as a tax increase by nearly all the e-mailers who oppose it.

“I would not support this if it were a a tax increase,” Pretzel said.

Commissioner Natalie Coleman, D-Plainfield, attributed the large number of emails to social media postings that she said misrepresented the $50 million bond plan.

“Can we please just stop lying to the community – telling people we’re increasing their taxes when we’re not?” Coleman said.

Coleman did not name names.

But Commissioner Mark Revis, R-Plainfield, spoke up to acknowledge he was the guy who sent out the social media posts and said he believed the bond plan does amount to a tax increase.

Will County board member Mark Revis sits in on the Will County board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Joliet.

“Be upset with me all you want,” Revis said to fellow commissioners. “People don’t want more property taxes.”

Revis was the lone no vote as the Finance Committee voted 6-1 to recommend approval of the $50 million bond plan to the full forest preserve board, which will vote on it when it meets on June 13.

A number of commissioners emphasized that the forest preserve takes up only 1.5% of the average property tax bill. But Revis said the number of emails sent on the bond issue reflected public frustration over the property tax system.

“Many people are conveying their emotions through email because property taxes are out of control,” Revis said.

“My paycheck doesn’t go up enough to pay new property taxes each year,” one person said in an email.

“We are retired seniors, and were are being taxed out of our house,” a Joliet resident said.

All 201 emails were read aloud at the hearing. It was difficult to gauge the exact number of pros and cons as they were read at the hearing because many did not include any clear message. But it appeared at least 150 opposed the bond plan while more than 20 supported it.

An information sign sits at the start of a trail at the Forest Preserve District of Will County Rock Run Preserve on Thursday June 6, 2024 in Joliet.

Plans for the bond money

The forest preserve since 1990 has intermittently issued bonds to fund land acquisition and capital projects at forest preserves. Typically, as it is doing this time, the district has issued new bonds after paying off previous bonds.

The $50 million bond now under consideration would allow the forest preserve to move ahead with land acquisition, extend trails that already exist, improve access to forest preserves, and convert already acquired farm land to its previous state as prairie or savannah.

The district has plans to acquire between 1,000 and 1,250 acres of land, Forest Preserve Executive Director Ralph Schultz told the commissioners.

“The vast majority of that will be agricultural land,” Schultz said, adding that most of it is adjacent to existing forest preserves.

The forest preserve district now has 23,000 acres, including 3,500 acres of farm land yet to be converted to prairie or savanna. The district rents out the land to be farmed until it is converted to forest preserve use.

Commissioners commented that while the forest preserve district represents a small portion of property tax bills, it provides one of the most widely used government services by opening land for recreation.

“The forest preserve actually services the widest range of people in our community,” Commissioner Daniel Butler, R-Frankfort said. “There could be a thousand people on a trail on a Sunday.”