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County fails public on toboggan slides

Friday, January 07, 2005
Daily Southtown

Cook County officials again have targeted the Swallow Cliff toboggan slides for closing. The Forest Preserve District Board ó the same individuals who sit on the Cook County Board of Commissioners ó has proposed a 2005 budget that includes no appropriation to maintain or operate Swallow Cliff or any of the other forest preserve toboggan slides.

Published reports this week said county officials believe it would cost more than $400,000 to repair the toboggan chutes and the county's toboggans. Officials said the county can't afford to spend that much on Swallow Cliff, located on Route 83 in Palos Township.

Swallow Cliff has been on the hit list of board President John Stroger and the county board for several years, but public outcry forced them to reverse themselves. Now it appears the board strategy was to allow the slides to deteriorate to the point that they could cry poor and shut down the popular attraction. Whether that was the board's intention, it certainly is what has happened, and the thousands of county taxpayers who have used the slides have every right to be outraged.

The forest preserve board and its staff have done a woeful job of operating the slides in recent years despite the fact that low snowfall accumulations in recent years have kept the slides closed most of the time.

Last year, the first significant snowfall occurred in February, and some 6,000 people turned out to use them in a single day. But only two of the six chutes were open, and families waited up to three hours to make a single trip down the hill. In our view, the day was a disaster ó and a reflection of a disgraceful inattention to the job the forest preserve district is supposed to do.

If money really is the problem, the county could increase the nominal fee it now charges. But a second option, privatizing the slides, now looks like the only viable option. The county has made a feeble gesture in that direction, but even that job apparently was too difficult. Only a single bidder responded to the county's request for proposals, and he primarily was interested in running a summertime activity called "zorbing," which involves rolling down the hill inside big plastic balls. But the forest preserve board has tried to avoid even talking to that bidder.

Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) suggested the county should spend the money to maintain the slides, instead of using the money to pay for "patronage jobs."

Obviously, she's right.

Swallow Cliff traditionally attracts far more users than any of the other county slides, and the forest preserve board should make it a priority to keep it open, even if the others must close.

The forest preserve board exists solely to maintain and operate the forest preserves and their facilities. If the board members can't perform that job, what do we need them for?

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