State Rep. Jefferson helps save tax caps as forest preserve tax rate bill fails
• The Rock River Times exclusive: proposed tax increase keeps controversy rolling for the new forest preserve district board
By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
and Brandon Reid
Editor’s note: the majority of this story was posted March 23, 2012, on www.rockrivertimes.com.
House Bill 4752 was defeated in the Illinois House of Representatives by a vote of 59-44 March 23, blocking an amendment to the bill that would have allowed the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD) to call for a referendum to allow an increase of up to 150 percent of the current tax rate.
In opposing the bill on the House floor, state Rep. Chuck Jefferson, D-Rockford, cited WCFPD’s poor track record as a steward of public funds.
“The bill went down in flames,” Jefferson said. “I got up and said the Forest Preserve District just wasted $220,000 on a worthless piece of property. Why should we entrust them with a rate increase?”
Jefferson was speaking of the controversial purchase of 18 acres with four lakes from former Sheriff Don Gasparini by the WCFPD using operation funds when the land acquisition fund was depleted. At $12,000 an acre, when the land was not on the priority acquisition list, the purchase outraged many. Because of Gasparini and WCFPD Board President Randy Olson’s long-time friendship, “cronyism” was discussed in various public forums, especially considering how much it will cost to bring the rugged property up to forest preserve standards, including water quality, roadways, signage, shelters and other facilities and infrastructure.
As to H.B. 4752, according to Winnebago County Assessor Thomas J. Walsh, the amendment would have conflicted with tax caps, which allow “increases in the rate matching the change in the Consumer Prices Index or an increase of 5 percent, whichever is less.”
The current tax rate for the WCFPD is .0898.
The amendment to H.B. 4752, sponsored by state Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland, was first reported by The Rock River Times online March 23. Winters said in the earlier report that the bill would affect the operating fund section of the tax rate, which is now .06, as delineated by tax caps. The WCFPD amendment asks for a .15 rate, or a 150 percent increase, to be authorized by referendum, bypassing tax cap rules.
“Tax caps are null if voters override them by referendum,” Winters said.
Winters asserted WCFPD Executive Director Tom Kalousek said all of the .15 rate would not be used immediately, and such a high rate would potentially take care of the district’s needs for 20 years, if incrementally increased.
“I told Kalousek that 15 percent was too high,” he said, and acknowledged the full rate technically could be used the first year.
Winters also asserted, “The voters should have the right to decide” if they want to provide the forest preserve with more revenue. “The county forest preserve is at their .06 limit and would like to make their case to increase their rate to the public,” he said.
When asked if voters had requested this amendment, Winters replied WCFPD Board President “Randy Olson is the one pushing to get more revenue.” Winters also said he had recently refused to sponsor some legislation concerning funding for the WCFPD law enforcement requested by Olson for various reasons.
Olson said nothing was being done in a “sneaky” manner as the issue of increasing the tax rate had been discussed in an open forum at multiple WCFPD Board meetings. He also asserted Jefferson’s lack of support for the bill may have been a result of an extension of Jefferson’s campaign against WCFPD Board member Gloria Lind, whom Jefferson defeated in the race for state representative in the March 20 primary. Olson said rejection of the bill deprives the citizens of Winnebago County of their voice by keeping them from being able to put to referendum raising the corporate tax rate.
One of Jefferson’s campaign brochures, paid for by the state Democratic Party, pictured WCFPD Board member Gloria Lind alongside pictures of former Illinois governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich as convicted felons. Running against Jefferson and losing to him for state representative in the Democratic primary, Lind was reported to have said to friends, “Look at what they’re doing to me.” Jefferson said his literature was factual.
Jefferson asserted: “Mr. Olson is way off target with those allegations. My vote had nothing to do with the election. It was against a tax increase. The election was over [March 20] at the time of my opposition to this [March 23]. Mr. Olson was one of the ‘Yes’ votes to buy the Gasparini property. We, as legislators that are guardians of the taxpayers’ dollars, have to guard those dollars frugally. If the forest preserve district doesn’t do that, then we may have to look at the board.”
Jefferson also noted the state legislation for separation of the WCFPD, with an independent board from the county board, was given extended time and public consideration, which this request for referendum for a tax increase did not enjoy.
Winters said the language of the amendment would have allowed the Byron Forest Preserve District (BFPD) to go to referendum for a tax increase. That district has a long history of cooperation with WCFPD, through the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and, most recently, a “going Green” presentation to the WCFPD Board about iPads. Also, both forest preserve districts have provided new campsites for the Rock River Trail Initiative.
The BFPD’s Executive Director Todd Tucker noted forest preserves are at a much lower tax rate than municipal parks, with fewer funds to utilize.
Winters has sponsored successful legislation creating a scenic road route as part of the Rock River Trail.
Where without controversy, BFPD was really designed, in large part, for prairie restoration, WCFPD’s recent clear-cutting of large tracts of timber for prairie restoration in Sugar River, Alder, Fuller, Pecatonica River and Roland Olson forest preserves has angered many and been the hottest point of many controversies for the new board.
While most of the reported 8,500 trees were red pines, a portion were hardwoods. However, the district was only paid $2 to $4 a ton for the lumber.
The low price has been justified because of transportation costs, as noted by Winters.
Since being separated by well-publicized legislation from the Winnebago County Board, the newly independent WCFPD Board has been beset by one controversy after another, beginning with the purchase of some property from Gasparini. BlackHawk Sierra Club asked the board to reconsider the purchase of Gasparini’s property. It was also discovered WCFPD Board member Jay Ferraro lived in East Moline, and he resigned. More recently, area hunters have avidly questioned the district’s deer-hunting policy.
Winters announced he would not seek re-election as state representative since redistricting would require him to move. For the full language of his amendment, go to www.ilga.gov/legislation/fulltext.asp?DocName=09700HB4752ham001-&GA=97&SessionId=84&DocTypeId=HB&LegID=64626&Doc-Num=4752&GAID=11&Session=.
Going for retirement, Kalousek was not retained by the new board as executive director, but was given a generous exit package. A search is under way to fill his position. For those guidelines, go to www.wcfpd.org/assets/pdf/execvacancy.pdf.
Wishing to stay off the-record, other government officials said this relatively quiet move could be seen as reflecting a negative light and effect on other taxing bodies who also need more revenue, but go about seeking an increase openly. Winters acknowledged few people knew about the WCFPD request for the amendment.
From the March 28-April 3, 2012, issue
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