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Cook County may stick suburbs with red-light intersections

Friday, July 16, 2010
Daily Herald
by Robert McCoppin and Ted Cox

Cook County may require suburbs that opt out of its red-light cameras to take over all the costly maintenance of those intersections.

Suburban officials signaled they would fight the proposal, saying such maintenance would require tax increases that they cannot accept.

The county board recently voted to let municipalities choose not to get the county's red-light cameras as proposed for 20 suburban intersections, after Arlington Heights and Schaumburg opposed the cameras.

But some board commissioners threatened to shift all maintenance costs onto any suburb that opposed the cameras.

Now, an opinion by the Cook County State's Attorney's office concludes that if a municipality chooses not to participate, the municipality would become responsible for all maintenance at that intersection, according to county board president spokeswoman Chris Geovanis.

Such maintenance would include any necessary construction, repaving, traffic lights, snow plowing, signage, cleanup, and any other costs, possibly for a mile or more from the intersection.

Schaumburg Village Manager Ken Fritz did not know the cost of such maintenance, but said for the six intersections the county wanted to include in Schaumburg, it could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly if paving was included.

Board President Todd Stroger's administration is assessing the opinion to see if there's any "wiggle room" for a compromise between the county and the suburbs, Geovanis said.

"It doesn't necessarily present the best path forward for anyone," Geovanis said. "We're trying to see what our options are here."

Geovanis said it's not simply a city versus suburbs story, nor one pitting board President Todd Stroger against the board.

While the county and municipalities often split responsibilities for maintenance and police, Geovanis said that is a separate law enforcement function. Red-light camera enforcement, she maintained, is different because it involves the highway department's broader mission of safety.

If the county board tried to force maintenance on municipalities, Fritz said, "We would have to look at our legal options."

Schaumburg had tried its own red light cameras at one intersection, and raised $1 million from tickets there in three months.

But as elsewhere in the suburbs, most of the tickets were for right turns on red, and did not appreciably decrease the number of accidents.

The village generates $50 million annually for the county in sales and property taxes, so for the county to suddenly require local road maintenance, Fritz said, is "disingenuous."

"It takes two unrelated topics and tries to meld them together, which is inappropriate," he said.

In Arlington Heights, Mayor Arlene Mulder said municipalities often work with the county and other governmental bodies to share road maintenance duties to improve efficiency.

Having municipalities take over portions of county roads made no sense, because the county would still have to duplicate services by maintaining the rest of the road.

"If this moves forward, she said, "it's a lose-lose for taxpayers, because it's going to be more costly."

Patrick Driscoll, chief adviser to the county from the State's Attorney's Office, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

But Chicago Democratic Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno confirmed that Driscoll had issued an opinion that if municipalities "opted out" on a red-light intersection, they were, in effect, claiming jurisdiction, and "they're going to claim financial responsibility for it as well."

"They're responsible for the control and maintenance of the intersection," Moreno added, "and it's very expensive and they don't have the money."

Moreno is aware that most of the opposition on the county board is coming from suburban commissioners, "because they've been taking flak from the local mayors," he said. "I understand that."

Moreno strongly supports the cameras as a "public safety" issue, and dismissed those who complained about tickets issued from the red-light cameras. "There's a simple solution," he said. "Don't go through any red lights."



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