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A death knell for TB district?

Thursday, April 13, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Nearly a century ago, scores of baby hammocks were slung inside the open-air sanitarium at Fullerton Avenue and Lake Michigan. The structure, now known as the Chicago Park District's Theater on the Lake, was built to air out thousands of poor tenement babies who had contracted tuberculosis. Yes, it was thought fresh air might cure them.

It was a time when the highly contagious, often deadly disease ravished overcrowded slum neighborhoods. The disease was so serious and so rampant that in 1947 a special tuberculosis taxing district was established in suburban Cook County, as was done in other areas around the country.

Since then, medical breakthroughs have significantly decreased the incidence of TB and deaths from the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases nationwide has declined from about 84,000 in 1953 to fewer than 15,000 in 2004, an 82 percent decrease. Most cases now are effectively treated at home or in the hospital.

The Suburban Cook County Tuberculosis Sanitarium District treated a mere 91 new cases last year. One would think that's low enough to do what nearly every other special TB taxing district nationwide did long ago: close up shop. But suburban Cook taxpayers, from Winnetka to Wheeling to Western Springs to Worth, may have noticed that hasn't happened.

Look at your tax bill: You're paying for an entrenched, anachronistic bureaucracy. The TB district has a budget of $6.2 million, which averages out to about $68,000 per new case.

Chicago's health department treats TB cases for a small fraction of that cost, according to the Civic Federation, which for years has been calling for the district's demise. The TB district has been little more than a secretive, mismanaged, expensive, duplicative jobs program for about 140 employees.

Last year the Cook County state's attorney's office had to step in to prevent the TB board from awarding generous severance packages to workers there and lifetime health benefits for anyone who was let go if the district was incorporated into the county health system.

The state Senate voted earlier this year to eliminate the TB district. That bill now faces a vote in the House, and should be approved.

That doesn't mean TB patients wouldn't get help. City and county health departments can do that. It does mean some unnecessary jobs would go away. And suburban taxpayers would save a little money.

Previous attempts to eliminate the district have failed. In the past, TB district officials have spent tax money to hire lobbyists to protect their fiefdom. This year, fortunately, the TB district officials have lost the inclination to spend wads of cash on lobbyists.

And that should make this the easiest vote any legislator will have to make this spring.

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