How I Spend Your Money

This column is about the fact that I’m going to spend $3.7 million of your money this December.

Yes, it’s true. It’s a tough life, but I stepped up and volunteered to spend your money. So that’s what I do. Just last month, I spent $183,495.85 of your money on things like paying the electric bill, buying a golf simulator, firewood and sod. I also approved purchasing a brand new 2019 Toyota RAV4 LE Hybrid for $30,093.81 (for next month) with your money. I do hope you like it.

But most likely, you won’t actually get to drive it. You probably won’t even see it.

But the staff at your Champaign County Forest Preserve District will. This is all part of the stuff you pay for and you own. That’s what public ownership means. And as a Commissioner on the Champaign County Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners, I represent you, making sure that your money is being wisely spent by Executive Director Mary Ellen Wuellner and her staff. You can see most of the details of your spending on the CCFPD website by reviewing our meeting minutes. It’s all in the public record.

And of course, here I’m using “you” in the plural sense, as in: all of you who live in Champaign County. I could just as easily have said “our”, since I am also a taxpayer here, to the tune of $5,740.46 per year (also public record). Of that, our I pay a measly 75 bucks per year to the Forest Preserve District. To keep things in perspective, M-S School District gets just over $3,700 a year. These proportions, if not the amounts, are roughly the same for many of you.

So about that RAV4 – my total annual Forest Preserve tax bill would actually barely pay for a couple tanks of gas. So I wouldn’t necessarily expect to get to drive it around, I suppose.

That $3.7 million represents, according to our Finance Director, the total estimated tax revenue we’ll get from the collective “you”, the residents of Champaign County for our 2020 budget year. We get even more money from grants, donations and some interest income, so our proposed budget will be in the range of $5,475,713. And we are going to vote to approve that budget (most likely) at our December meeting. And yes, of that, 3.7 million is “your” money.

So maybe the first question you’d have is: how the heck does this dude ‘Scott Hays’ get to approve of how my 75 bucks (give or take) is spent?

That’s a good question, because I didn’t run for office and you never got a chance to vote for me in this position. Yet here I am. Gasp! Is this ‘taxation without representation??”

On that note, I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point, that explained how the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party were basically mobsters running an illegal Asian tea import ring to bypass paying British taxes. Those crazy Brits eventually caught on to their scam and lowered their taxes to make British tea more competitive. This upset the mobsters, so they dressed up like Mohawks and dumped the British tea into Boston Harbor.

Of course, they cried “Taxation without Representation” which sounds great since the colonists had no representation in British Parliament to participate in the laws that were passed that governed them, including what taxes they would pay. However, after the American Revolution, the mobsters went legit and became the “Founding Fathers” and of course, they taxed the tea, just like the Brits did. This proves that the issue the colonists had was not with paying taxes but with the representation they got (ie: none).

In my case, yes you are being taxed (about $75 a year, give or take), but I am your representative. Here’s how it works:

Like my fellow Commissioners, I was appointed to this position by your elected representatives on the Champaign County Board, which, before we had a County Executive, was pretty much left to the County Board Chair, at the time, Pius Weibel. The Board Chair makes a recommendation to the full board regarding appointments, and the board members (usually) accept these appointments. I say “usually” because the only “no” vote I received on my appointment was from one of our two District 1 County Board reps. But hey, I’m not naming names here. And no matter, I got what I wanted. And now I get to decide how to spend your money.

So getting back to you and your ownership of that brand new 2019 RAV4.  Do you own it, or not? Why yes, you do. That’s what ‘public ownership’ means. And you only had to pay 75 bucks (give or take) for it. What a deal!

Did you also know you are a landholder of 3,919 Champaign County acres that you are also paying 75 bucks (give or take) for? You are! Now, what are you going to do with all your cheap land?

Well, one thing I majorly recommend is that you go visit your lands to check them out. All of it. You own it, so get out there! There are lots of trails, picnic shelters and even a campground (at Middle Fork Forest Preserve) that you can take advantage of to experience the natural world on your property.

And another thing: you’re going to own it forever too. If I have any say over it, it’s going to remain in the most natural condition that we can maintain it. And where it’s not, we’re going to restore it. This prevents your land from being plowed over or converted to more rural ‘McMansions’ that continue to sprout up all over our county.  But at least your 3,919 acres won’t be having it.

But what if you do want to do something with “your” land? That’s a more complicated question because again, the “you” here is plural. It’s owned collectively by all of the taxpayers of Champaign County, which is somewhere north of 209,000 people and if you wanted to do something with your land, I’m afraid you’d have to contend with your fellow landholders.

Who in this case are well represented by “your” five appointed representatives on the Champaign County Forest Preserve Board, one of which is me. But of course, you are always welcome to come and let us know your thoughts on that subject during public comment at our Champaign County Forest Preserve District monthly meetings, usually on the third Thursday evening at 6pm. (see our website for details).

Or I can do you one better: come to one of two upcoming public input sessions for the development of our 5 year Forest Preserve Strategic Plan. The first will be at Lake of the Woods Pavilion on Monday, October 28th at 5:30 pm and the next one will be on Wednesday October 30 at Homer Lake’s Salt Fork Center.

When I stepped up by submitting my application to be a Forest Preserve District Commissioner, I did not take that responsibility lightly. And I was deeply honored to have been appointed by the Champaign County Board. But I also enjoy my role greatly; I have fun, and I particularly like the fact that when I visit our Forest Preserves, I feel a very real sense that they are “my” Forest Preserves; I am entrusted with these properties: these are my rivers, my trees, my restored prairies, my paths, my picnic shelters and yes, my men’s rooms (which I tend to need more often lately).

But I want you to know that they are “yours” also. You pay for them (to the tune of $75 a year, give or take) and in a very real sense, you own them. Be sure and visit your properties often and come to one of our meetings to let your voice be heard now and then and don’t forget to attend our upcoming Strategic Plan Public Meetings so you, the taxpayer – and you, the landholder – can have some say-so about the management of your lands and about how I spend your $3.7 million.

Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, October 17, 2019

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