Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wants to eliminate unincorporated areas to cut her budget.
After a failed attempt to persuade municipalities to take control of these areas last year, she appointed a task force to study the issue.
On Monday, the task force, after months of study, reached its conclusion — all unincorporated areas should be annexed into existing municipalities.
It’s amazing how often a government task force appointed by an elected official will agree with the ideas of that elected official.
“It strikes me as un-American to force people to annex to an area if they don’t want to do it or to force a municipality to annex an area if it doesn’t want to,” Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki said.
Unincorporated areas are not part of any municipality. Often, the people who live there choose to precisely because of that. They don’t like the regulations set down by towns.
If you live in an unincorporated area, you may be able to park your business truck behind your home. You can raise chickens without getting approval from the village board. You can let your grass grow high without some town issuing you a $150 ticket.
There’s simply more freedom in an unincorporated area to do what you want to do.
Zabrocki would tell you that there can be taxpayer costs whenever a suburb tries to bring these areas under its control.
In an area near Tinley Park called Kimberly Heights, the mayor said, the village has been annexing two or three homes at a time as they file for annexation.
“Those homes are usually looking to hook up to our water and sewer system, and our view has been we’re not going to do that at a cost to our taxpayers,” Zabrocki said. “If the residents of an unincorporated area are willing to pay the costs, we’ll annex them.”
Unincorporated areas vary from mobile home parks to upscale housing developments. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he’s responsible for patrolling one unincorporated area that has a single home.
Mick Kelly lives in an unincorporated area of Orland Township and has been hoping that his subdivision would annex into Orland Park for more than a decade. His neighborhood is served by Illinois American Water, one of the most expensive water systems in the state.
To annex Kelly’s subdivision, Orland Park would have to buy Illinois American Water’s sewer and water lines and that could cost millions of dollars. That’s not going to happen unless Cook County pays for it.
There are approximately 98,000 residents living in the 62 square miles of unincorporated land in Cook County. By law, county sheriff’s police are required to patrol the areas as the “conservator of the peace” in the county.
Preckwinkle previously suggested that unincorporated residents pay higher taxes to pay for the sheriff’s police patrols.
“There’s no reason 98 percent of the people in Cook County should pay for police services for the 2 percent who live in unincorporated areas,” Preckwinkle said in November 2011.
But residents of unincorporated areas quickly replied that they paid taxes to Cook County, including for sheriff’s police, and deserved police protection. And they threatened to file lawsuits if Preckwinkle made them pay more for police services.
Preckwinkle at the time also urged municipalities to come into those areas and charge them a fee for police protection. But most towns declined.
Dart told me sheriff’s police already perform evidence-gathering functions for 60 municipalities in Cook County.
“They’re trying to cut costs, not find new ways of spending their money,” he said.
Dart was dubious about a proposal from Sauk Village to patrol an unincorporated area nearby.
“Do county officials realize that they may have to send a check to the Sauk Village police chief in the lock-up because village officials keep trying to arrest him?” Dart said.
The sheriff said before Cook County allows towns to offer police patrols for a fee, it should at least guarantee that those suburbs will hire more police officers, or increase hours, to be able to patrol unincorporated areas.
Dart has proposed saving money by replacing the forest preserve district police with his officers and charging suburbs on a sliding scale (based on ability to pay) for specific sheriff’s police services.
That would make sense for the suburbs and Cook County. So it probably won’t happen.