LAKE FOREST — An additional fee of $10 per quarter for residential water use and $35 for other users to help fund police and fire pensions took a step closer to reality in Lake Forest.
The Lake Forest City Council gave preliminary approval to the fee and a 1.45 percent increase in the city’s real estate tax levy November 21 at City Hall as part of its short-term strategy to deal with the compounding reality of meeting public safety pension obligations.
With a proposed 2016 levy for property taxes due in 2017 of approximately $29.9 million, Finance Director Elizabeth Holleb said it represents a 1.45 percent hike from the 2015 amount of just over $29.5 million.
The tax increase will cost the owner of an $800,000 home in Lake Forest approximately $30 more per year along with $40 tacked onto to their water bill bringing the additional output to $70 annually, according to Holleb.
The council will cast its final vote on the levy and water fee surcharge at 7:30 p.m. December 5 at City Hall. Though a public hearing is not required by law, Holleb said members of the public will have an opportunity to add their comments at that meeting. No one from the public spoke November 21.
With a projected police and fire pension obligation of $3,130,247 for the next fiscal year and a cost of $2,875,271, Holleb said the forecasted composite increase is $8.9 percent.
Holleb said the annual police and fire pension obligations climbed from $1.2 million in 2005 to $3.1 million next year. The projected requirement in 2027 is $ $6.7 million. The city has been wrestling publicly with potential long- and short-term pension solutions since September when the idea of a fee tacked onto the water bill was first posited.
Approximately $293,000 will be generated from the water surcharge, which will slightly more than cover the anticipated pension contribution increase of $255,000, according to Holleb. Alderman George Pandaleon calls the fee a “matter of transparency.”
“We don’t want it to get mixed into the tax levy,” said Pandaleon.
Though the levy received unanimous support on its first reading, the initial consideration of the fee was 6-1 with Alderman Jack Reisenberg voting no. He said he wants to put a strategy in place for a long-term solution before agreeing to a one-year fix.
“If we pass this and we don’t have a long-term strategy in place we’re not doing our job,” said Reisenberg. “I want a strategy before you go,” he added referring to three aldermen and Mayor Donald Schoenheider whose terms expire in May.
Schoenheider along with Aldermen Catherine Waldeck, Michael Adelman and Pandaleon cannot run for reelection because of term limits. Schoenheider said a long-term effort will take more than a few months but help is needed now.
“We have to put our finger in the dike,” said Schoenheider. “We are putting this out front but everything is on the table. This is scary. This is not going to get fixed tomorrow.”
A variety of plans for a comprehensive solution are already underway. Schoenheider and City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. have reached out to neighboring communities to explore working with area fire departments to share services and reduce the overall cost while continuing to provide equally good service.