Savings for the county may mean more expenses for local taxpayers.
To rid itself of as many expenses as possible, debt-plagued Cook County announced April 30 its desire for its suburban municipalities to absorb all unincorporated areas. While the Cook County government would gain some savings, taxpayers in affected areas would have to pay for a multitude of upgrades required by their new villages’ codes.
For the unincorporated spaces around Buffalo Grove, a switchover might run more expensive than most places. Wheeling Township covers the largest of Buffalo Grove’s rural neighbors, and hires non-union labor for its road maintenance — a savings a municipality likely could not keep.
“It’s not politics, it’s fact,” said Jo Stellato, Wheeling Township’s director of finance and administration. “The villages, I’m sure it’ll cost more.”
Cook County’s leadership, in looking at possibly insurmountable debts, is considering a move that state officials are also pondering: passing expenses down to local taxing bodies. As officials in Springfield think about telling school districts that districts are now responsible for their teachers’ pensions, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is looking at pushing the unincorporated areas’ expenses down the line.
“The continued provision of municipal-type services to unincorporated areas strain the county’s financial resources, reducing available funds for the county’s primary functions — health care and criminal justice,” according to Preckwinkle’s announcement.
In Cook County’s idea, making unincorporated areas go away would be tricky, involving both willing residents and willing municipalities. Preckwinkle listed in her announcement only a vague timeline of how changes might happen.
She may have a partner, though, in Buffalo Grove, which has considered taking in at least one unincorporated zone. The “Dun Lo Drive” and “Highland” neighborhoods, south of Dundee Road on opposite sides of Buffalo Grove Road, are two unincorporated areas bordering Buffalo Grove’s Cook County side, and Deputy Village Manager Ghida Neukirch wrote in an e-mail they are part of Village Hall’s master plan.
“The village would be amenable to annexation, although there would be a number of costs involved to bring the area into compliance with village regulations, most notably street construction and maintenance,” Neukirch wrote.
She said the neighborhoods appeared well-positioned for municipal water and would remain guarded by the Prospect Heights Fire Protection District, but she listed concerns about street conditions, storm sewers and some homes’ conditions.
“There are a number of properties that do not meet the village’s regulations as it relates to zoning and development,” she wrote. “For example, there are a number of driveways that do not meet current village zoning standards; fencing in various areas is non-conforming to the village codes; structures appear to be located within setbacks and easements.”
Beyond the upgrades, the cost of annual maintenance might go up, as well. The streets in the Dun Lo area are covered by Wheeling Township. Stellato said her agency serves 5.4 miles of streets, too small to justify having their own labor force, so they contract the work out to non-union companies.
“That saves us a substantial amount of money,” she said.
Wheeling Township collects a $500,000 levy for road work, and Stellato expected any municipality using union labor would have to double that levy to perform the same work. Should mass annexations happen, she said the township would lose its ability to levy that fee, since it would no longer have any roads to handle, and the municipalities would gain that ability.
Even without unincorporated areas, townships would still exist. Stellato said Wheeling’s remaining, $2.6 million general budget would go toward the agency’s main duties: transportation and meals for senior citizens and the disabled, a mobile dental clinic, a food pantry and a clerk.
“There’s a lot people don’t understand,” about the townships’ roles, she said.
Preckwinkle pressed that her agency would save money.
“It’s clear that in order to reduce our staggering budget deficit, and maintain value for taxpayers, we need to move toward the goals outlined in this report, and eliminate the unincorporated areas of Cook County,” she said in her statement.
But the elimination of expenses for one taxing body would likely lead only to the addition of expenses for others.
Neither Cook County or Buffalo Grove have announced any specific plans for any annexations.