Forest Preserve District's expensive police paradiseNew station came in 3 times over budget. Now department could be eliminated
Monday, June 07, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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."