(Photo by Michael Romain)

A referendum question will appear on the ballot in November that is as unassuming as the wetlands and prairies and woodlands many commuters pass by without so much as a nod. 

The Nov. 8 ballot measure will ask voters in Cook County if they’d be willing to increase their property taxes so that the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — which is tasked with protecting nearly 70,000 acres of natural and recreational land across the county — might bring in another $43.5 million a year in revenue. 

More than 300 miles of trails, 40 lakes and ponds, 274 picnic groves, 10 golf courses, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo are located on the district’s property. 

If the referendum passes, the average homeowner in the county would pay an additional $1.50 per month toward the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, according to informational material the district has created ahead of the referendum.  

Homeowners already pay an average of $3 to $4 a month toward the district. According to the Forest Preserves’ 2021 budget documents, the owner of a median-priced home pays $35 to $45 a year toward the Forest Preserve, depending on the municipality they live in. Less than 1 percent of a homeowner’s property tax bill goes to the Forest Preserve District.   

The referendum question comes as the district has noticed an unprecedented number of visitors to their various properties, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made access to the outdoors much more critical. 

“Trail Watch volunteers reported nearly twice as many trail users in 2020 from March through August than in 2019,” according to Forest Preserve District budget documents.

The increased demand for outdoor spaces is also happening as the Forest Preserve District shoulders a heavy pension obligation and a laundry list of deferred maintenance projects.

If the referendum passes, about 21 percent of the anticipated $43.5 million of additional revenue would go toward paying pension obligations, 17 percent will go toward acquiring new open land and 14 percent will go toward ecological restoration, among other areas. 

Brookfield Zoo will get 9 percent, or an extra $4 million a year, to fund urgent capital work, such as building and storm water mitigation initiatives. 

Benjamin Cox, the executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, a nonprofit that advocates for forest preserves in Cook County, said there’s a coalition of roughly 170 institutions, including museums and nonprofits like his, that are educating the public about the referendum, which could be the most significant since the one in 1914 that created the Forest Preserve District. 

“If these lands are to survive, we’ve got to make them as healthy as possible,” Cox said. “The more we can do to get invasive species out and native species in and ecosystems thriving the better. And when they’re healthier they do a better job of cooling and cleaning the air, cooling and cleaning water and slowing water down.” 

Cox said the additional funds will be a serious shot in the arm for the Forest Preserve District, whose total budget last year was about $130 million, with about $63 million going toward general operating expenses.

Cox said the coalition and other referendum advocates have bought ad spots on TV and radio. The Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune have endorsed the ballot measure, which has garnered largely bipartisan support. 

The Cook County Board of Commissioners, which also comprises the Forest Preserve District board, voted unanimously last year to place the referendum on the ballot.