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Forest Preserve District's expensive police paradise
New station came in 3 times over budget. Now department could be eliminated

Monday, June 07, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Chris Fusco

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County paid nearly $2 million in June 2008 to buy a single-family home on five acres next to Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester.

The plan at the time was for the land to buffer the nature preserve from "adverse impacts" caused by potential "high-density development." Conservationists hailed the move, seeing it as a way to keep town homes or condos from being built on the site.

Then, things changed.

Rather than tear down the house with the fanciful address of 1 Aloha Lane to create more open space, Forest Preserve District officials decided it was the perfect place for a new headquarters for the forest preserve police. They began a yearlong-plus construction project, hiring dozens of contractors to renovate the home into a 5,428-square-foot law enforcement facility.

The renovations were supposed to cost $200,000, records show.

In fact, they ended up costing more than three times that: a total of $714,526, which includes tens of thousands of dollars to build a parking lot, remove a backyard patio and fill in what was an in-ground swimming pool.

The result is the wooded "Central Police Facility" along 31st Street west of Wolf Road, which opened in March and is now home base for the forest preserve police chief and 29 of his department's 104 full-time personnel.

But after all that, the building might not be a police station for long. All three candidates running for Cook County Board president support Sheriff Tom Dart's longstanding proposal to have his department take over the forest preserve police force's duties.

Technically speaking, the district is a legally separate entity from county government. But the same elected officials who run the county -- the County Board president and 17 county commissioners -- also run the forest preserves. So, whether Democrat Toni Preckwinkle, Republican Roger Keats or the Green Party's Tom Tresser is elected in November to replace lame-duck Todd Stroger, the forest preserve police department -- and the new headquarters -- could be on the chopping block.

Eliminating the department "makes complete sense," says Dart.

He notes that his own department already is in charge of investigating any crimes that happen in the forest preserves. Also, he figures the math of a takeover like this: You could do away with the current 104 forest preserve police jobs, and he would need to hire only about 20 new officers to handle the added duties, amounting to a savings to Cook County taxpayers of about $8 million a year.

Keats says the change can't come soon enough.

"They're out there spending money, putting in a headquarters that nobody thinks they need, for a group of forest preserve officers that everybody thinks ought to be part of the sheriff," he says. "It's just a living, breathing example of what's wrong with Cook County."

Preckwinkle and Tresser, too, question why the forest preserve police project was done.

"You would wonder why they would acquire a parcel for prairie restoration and then put a police headquarters there," says Preckwinkle.

Forest Preserve District officials defend the new police headquarters as necessary and built in a fiscally responsible way.

And -- compared to housing plans for the property -- they say the project is environmentally friendly, noting the police building and paved areas take up a little less than 10 percent of the site.

Larry Godson, who heads a group called the Save the Prairie Society, says he can see some benefits.

"Our first choice would have been to have it totally natural," says Godson. "Now that we have the police station there, we see the advantages of having that protection for the preserve. . . . We have had issues with people poaching plants and such."

District officials say that if a new County Board president moves to eliminate the forest preserve police, there'll be a fight. Just last week, the district honored six forest preserve police officers for their work apprehending an attempted-murder suspect, says district spokesman Steve Mayberry, and Commissioners Pete Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park), Edwin Reyes (D-Chicago) and Joseph Mario Moreno (D-Chicago) all publicly supported keeping the forest preserve police.

"Every single collar county -- Kane, McHenry, Lake, DuPage and Will -- has both a sheriff's police department and a forest preserve police department," says Mayberry. "Any argument that the largest forest preserve system in the nation somehow should not have one is shortsighted."

Renovating the home in Westchester, Mayberry says, has allowed the district to fulfill a 5-year-old goal of consolidating in one location 30 forest preserve police personnel who formerly occupied offices in River Forest and North Riverside.

Besides the Westchester facility, the forest preserve police department has 74 other officers based at stations in Elgin and Palos Park.

Forest preserve officials budgeted $1.2 million to build a new police headquarters in Maywood in 2008 but scrapped those plans after the district's board agreed to buy the Westchester site for $1.98 million at their June 4, 2008, meeting.

The district had waged a lengthy battle to get that land. In 2006, commissioners hired the law firm of Neal & Leroy to condemn the property around the time that a developer was proposing to build 26 town homes there. The firm, headed by Chicago Board of Elections Chairman Langdon Neal, charged the district $123,746 for that case and for other work helping the district acquire 10 acres nearby for nearly $4 million.

District officials began renovating 1 Aloha Lane in August 2008, records show. They budgeted $200,000 for the project in their 191-page capital-improvement plan for 2009.

At the time, no one on the County Board questioned the work.

Now, Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside), whose district includes the police station, says that's because forest preserve officials buried the project in budget paperwork. He says he had no idea it was under way until last December, when district officials sent commissioners a letter stating they'd made a $66,800 "emergency purchase" for a new roof.

"The board should have been consulted," Peraica says. "This would have been one of those projects that would have gotten a major looking at, had they come to us for advice and consent."

Mayberry counters: "Mr. Peraica is aware that it is not incumbent upon the [district's] general superintendent [Steve Bylina] to receive board approval for a renovation of this sort."



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