MAHOMET — The Champaign County ballot includes another tax referendum this November. If voters approve, it will mean more money for the county’s system of forest preserves, just as they are experiencing an increase in visitors.
Lake of the Woods is one of those forest preserves. Located on the Sangamon River, the site includes almost 900 acres acres of woods and a replanted prairie, as well as a lake stocked for fishing, a golf course and a history museum. On a recent warm fall afternoon, Gary and Debbie Tooker from nearby Mahomet are having lunch at a picnic table, not far from the preserve’s Botanical Gardens, where they were married some years earlier. Gary Tooker says he’s a frequent visitor to Lake of the Woods, but nowadays, he has more company.
“You know, I used to come out here when I was younger with big groups of younger people,” said Tooker. “And everybody, for like, ten-fifteen years, kind of forgot the place even existed until COVID. I mean, this is the most people I’ve seen in this park in years.”
Tooker referred to the other visitors to the park, walking, jogging and using the picnic tables. The search for safe places to hang out during the COVID-19 pandemic has sent attendance up 50% from last year, at Lake of the Woods and the other forest preserves in the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.
College-age Mahomet resident Erin Jessup, another frequent visitor to Lake of the Woods, says she’s been coming because it’s a good place to meet with friends.
“Seeing people at a distance is much easier when you’re outside,” said Jessup. “So it’s been a great place to spend time with some friends I maybe haven’t caught up with in a while.”
The Champaign County Forest Preserve District is governed by a five-member board of commissioners, appointed by the Champaign County Board. The district was established by referendum in 1935, although its park did not open until 1948. Today, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District includes six preserves: Lake of the Woods, River Bend, Sangamon River, Homer Lake, Middle Fork River and the Champaign County portion of the Kickapoo Rail Trail.
Executive Director Mary Ellen Wuellner hopes the increased visits to all of the preserves in recent months will translate into support for the district’s tax referendum on the November 3rd ballot. Wuellner says the current property tax rate – even when supplemented by grants and donations — isn’t enough to cover all the work needed at the preserves, like the restoration of Willow Pond at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve near Penfield. Wuellner says the pond provides the only swimming beach in Champaign County.
“That project is not eligible for grants,” said Wuellner. “The only way that we can accomplish that work that needs to be done on that pond is through revenues, through tax revenue.”
Here are the numbers. Wuellner says about $29 from the property tax bill on a $100,000 home in Champaign County goes to the Forest Preserve District. If voters approve the district’s request for a one-and-a-half-cent tax increase per 100 dollars assessed valuation, that property tax bill would go up by $5.33 — contributing about $689 thousand a year in additional tax revenue for the district budget.
Wuellner says the forest preserve tax and the proposed increase are small compared to what other taxing bodies charge. But she says the money would help with a backlog of pressing work, like repairs to the spillway that helps control the water level at the lake in Lake of the Woods.
“If we lose this spillway here at Lake of the Woods, we could be in real danger of having a breach in that lake,” said Wuellner. “So, these are things that time has come to address them.”
Wuellner says the forest preserve district cannot campaign for passage of the referendum, although it can supply information. Supporters of the referendum have been promoting its passage through social media, yard signs, letters to the editor and a website, yestoforests.org .
Champaign County voters said ‘no’ to the last tax referendum for the Forest Preserve district in 2008. But Debbie Tooker, who joined her husband Gary for lunch at Lake of the Woods, says with attendance up due to the coronavirus, now may be the time to say ‘yes’.
“Because of the upgraded use,” said Mrs. Tooker. “I mean maybe, like Gary said, some people kind of forgot what was out here for a while. But now, everything is getting used more. And maybe the upgrades that could be let go previously, no longer can be.”
The referendum has been endorsed by several conservation and recreation groups in the county, including the Champaign County Audobon Society, Champaign County Bikes, Prairie Rivers Network and The Land Connection. It also has the support of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, which had opposed the previous forest preserve referendum in 2008. Farm Bureau manager Brad Uken says they support the current referendum, because the district is now using grants and donations, not tax money, to acquire land.
The forest preserve referendum is the only countywide tax referendum on the Champaign County ballot this November. Voters in Urbana will have an additional tax referendum to consider, asking for funds for public assistance programs run by the Cunningham Township supervisor’s office. And all Illinois voters are being asked to make a decision on a proposed state constitutional amendment to allow a graduated income tax.