On Thursday, August 6, the Board of Commissioners of the Champaign County Forest Preserves held a special public meeting at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve and voted unanimously to put a referendum question on the November ballot.
The referendum will ask voters for a very small tax increase to address a backlog of maintenance projects at the District’s existing forest preserves.
If the referendum passes, this would be the first voter-approved tax increase in the Forest Preserve District’s 72-year history. In that time, forest preserve lands have increased from 260 acres to the 4,000 acres of nature that are protected today.
Forests, prairies, wetlands, and waterways dot the landscape of Champaign County and offer outdoor respite for hundreds of residents and visitors each day.
The ballot initiative will ask voters to increase the Forest Preserves’ property tax limiting rate by 1.6 cents per $100 of Equalized Assessed Value of taxable property.
Put simply, the owner of a $100,000 home in Champaign County
would see a $5.33 annual increase if the referendum is approved by voters.*
That equates to about 45 cents a month.
The connection to nature has never been more critical than this year, when preserve staff have seen visitation increase significantly at all preserves during the COVID pandemic.
“Nationally, visitation is up 25% to 50% at local, state, and national parks as people look for places to exercise safely or simply beat the quarantine blues. Nature is essential, and we are definitely experiencing that at our preserves,” said Mary Ellen Wuellner, the Forest Preserves’ executive director.
The tax increase is needed to address a $3.7 million backlog of infrastructure and facility repair needs that cannot be addressed with current revenues.
This increase would add about $700,000 to the Forest Preserve’s annual budget and would allow it to address such five-year capital projects as Middle Fork’s Willow Pond restoration, improvements to the interpretive center at Homer Lake, roofs on Izaak Walton Cabin and the iconic covered bridge at Lake of the Woods, dam and spillway repairs at several lakes, accessibility improvements for individuals with mobility limitations, and restroom, playground and trail upgrades throughout the preserves.
“We’ve been planning for this referendum for the last several years because the need has never been greater. If it doesn’t pass, we will have to look at shutting down some facilities, canceling long-standing events, and assessing
fees for programs – none of which the board wants to do,” stated board president Andrew Kerins. “Connection to nature shouldn’t come with an entrance fee. This additional tax revenue will allow us to continue providing high quality stewardship of our unique natural and cultural resources.”
A dedicated group of community members have formed a committee to raise awareness of the referendum. A YesToForests.org website will go live soon with more information and details for volunteers.