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News Coverage of Kane Open Space Referendum

Elgin Courier-News
December 13, 2016

Forest Preserve District of Kane County weighs April referendum

Gloria Casas
Elgin Courier-News

A poll conducted by a nonprofit group found the Forest Preserve District of Kane County would get favorable support if it seeks a $50 million referendum in the April 2017 election, the group's president and CEO said.

Forest Preserve District of Kane County Executive Director Monica Meyers said the district met with a committee to explore the idea of having a referendum. Part of the process in making the determination is working with the Conversation Foundation and conducting a poll, she said.

The nonprofit foundation, which works with districts throughout the area, has conducted polls in the past, said Brook McDonald, Conservation Foundation president and CEO.

"We always want to know what the general feelings are of the voters, we don't want to do (a referendum) if we don't have a relative idea of what people are thinking," he said at a District meeting Tuesday.

The district has 60 percent core support from the 400 likely voters polled, McDonald said. That group supports the referendum 100 percent, he said. Twenty percent of those polled were against a referendum and "battleground" or switch voters were 20 percent, he said.

There was 56 percent support from voters living in the western part of the county and support across both political parties, McDonald said.

Voters were asked how they rated the district and 87 percent had a favorable view, he said. The percent increased from 75 percent in 2011 when the last poll was done prior to that year's referendum, he said.

Eighty-one percent of those polled were confident the district is spending referendum money wisely, up from 64 percent in 2011, he said. What these result say is "voters are very confident with how you spend the money and you do what you say you are going to do," McDonald said.

The District seems to have "significant support" for a referendum, McDonald said. The poll results were consistent with how residents voted in prior referenda, he said.

"A referendum is the purest form of democracy," McDonald said. "You simply vote to put it on the ballot. It is one of the few times voters become legislators." The district's job would be to provide factual information and volunteers would promote the referendum, he said.

Earlier this year, the district announced a refinance about $65 million in general obligation bonds that saved taxpayers about $11 million. A $50 million referendum would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $250,000 an additional $1.83 on their district tax bill, officials said.

The increase would cut into the savings taxpayers are getting from the refinance, but not by much, Commissioner Mark Davoust said.

The district's first referendum passed in 1999, Commission John Hoscheit said. The district had 5,000 to 6,000 acres of open space. Three other referenda allowed the District to purchase more land, now totaling 22,000 acres, he said.

Each referendum allowed the district to add between 2,500 and 3,000 acres, depending on the price, he said. Urban land is more expensive than land in the western part of the county, Hoscheit said. The district has spent 85 percent on land and 15 percent on capital improvements using the monies generated by the referenda, he said.

District officials are considering changing the percentages to 70 and 30 so the District can do more improvements since it owns more land, Hoscheit said. Seventy percent from a $50 million referendum would still accomplish the goal of adding 2,500 acres of land to its holdings, he said.

The favorable ratings the District received in the poll is significant because residents feel like purchasing open space is an investment, he said. "It is not like they are being taxed for our benefit, this is an investment," he said.

Forest Preserve District commissioners will vote on putting a referendum on the ballot in January. A decision must be made by then in order to place the question on the April 4 ballot.

Gloria Casas is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.