The remaining pockets of unincorporated Cook County should be absorbed into neighboring municipalities as soon as possible to save taxpayer money, according to a task force of elected and civic leaders.
But just how much savings would be realized by the cash-strapped county or even how long it might take for annexation was unclear, though officials say those very questions will be studied in the coming months. What is clear is that the issue of annexation faces delays and opposition.
“You and I probably won’t live to see this,” Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, a west suburban commissioner serving on the task force, said of the proposal to push all of unincorporated Cook County in to neighboring municipalities. “If we could get rid of them, great. But who’s going to take these parcels?”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who convened the task force, applauds the findings, but acknowledges there’s some work ahead.
Officials say that includes convincing jittery residents who fear they’ll have to dig deep in their pockets and pay more in property taxes and fees.
And it may involve the county shelling out money to make infrastructure improvements — from sidewalks to even sewer systems — so those unincorporated areas meet the zoning and other requirements of neighboring municipalities who may cry poor over doing the work.
But Preckwinkle said long-term savings may be in the cards for the governments in question and both municipalities and residents may agree they’re better partners.
“I don’t know how any one can argue that from Clark Street we should be administering services to suburban areas — it should be happening much closer to home,” she said, referring to the county’s head offices in downtown Chicago. “Local service delivery and local control seem to be much preferable.”
The largest concentration of residents living in unincorporated Cook County make their homes in islands across Maine Township in the northwestern suburbs; some 24,000 resident live outside the municipal areas there, according to the task force.
Preckwinkle announced the task force’s formation last November — the same day she backed away from her controversial proposal to charge residents of unincorporated areas for sheriff’s police patrols.
She argued that the nearly 100,000 taxpayers living outside incorporated areas of Cook County don’t pay taxes to a municipal police force, so they should pay for sheriff’s police protection. As the annexation discussions play out, Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times on Monday she’s not closing the door on that idea.
The task force examined, too, sheriff’s current task of policing unincorporated areas. That includes looking at, but offering no conclusions, about Sheriff Tom Dart’s discussion of a broader “metro-style” police department that could eliminate the bureaucracy that exists with 100 separate police departments operating in municipalities throughout the region. The task force is asking for a cost analysis of such a police force.
“All of this,” Laurence Msall, Civic Federation president and task force member says of the study, “gets us back to where we started in the budget process — trying to figure out what all of this costs us,” he said.
“If the county is going to continue to provide core services — the jail, the hospital, the court system — then we need to examine all areas of the county and how efficient operations are. And there are questions about whether the county can continue to provide services to such a disparate and large geographical area.”