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Plan for new county pushed
Southern Cook would become `Lincoln County'

Friday, June 25, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Rick Jervis

Donald Peloquin has a plan: If you can't beat 'em, leave 'em.

Frustrated with the economic rust of his region, the Blue Island mayor is looking to persuade other leaders in the southern part of Cook County to break away and form their own county.

The new territory--"Lincoln County"--would stretch from Chicago's border and the Indiana state line on the east to Will and DuPage Counties on the west, and from Interstate Highway 55 on the north to Will County on the south. It would encompass 55 municipalities and 900,000 residents.

Peloquin plans to meet with mayors from the south suburbs Tuesday at a Blue Island restaurant to discuss the concept and gauge interest. If the mayors agree, they would return to their towns and push resolutions to place non-binding referendum questions on the November ballot to measure voter interest.

If a majority votes yes, a petition drive would be launched to put the secession question on a general election ballot, probably in April, Peloquin said.

"This is not about being anti-Cook County," said Peloquin. "This is about controlling our own futures. This is one way to do it."

A top priority of the new county would be to lower taxes in industrial and business areas to lure back factories and manufacturers that fled the south suburbs over the past few decades, he said. The companies would create jobs and help kick-start the south suburban economy, which has deflated since the steel mills began leaving, he said.

The Lincoln County concept is striking a chord with some leaders who have long complained that county officials in Chicago overlook them.

While Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, questioned the logic of carving out the poorest part of the county with the smallest tax base to fend for itself, he said many of the issues raised by Peloquin are valid.

"The concept makes some sense," he said. "We do have a high frustration [with the county]. But the question is: Do you spend your time and effort on creating a new county, or do we better spend our time on trying to fix our problems?"

Secession from 173-year-old Cook County is not a new idea. Ill-fated efforts by northwest suburban townships to secede from Cook County surfaced in various forms in 1970, 1977, 1985 and 1995.

The last territory to successfully bolt from Cook was DuPage County--in 1839.

The main obstacle has been state law, which requires a countywide election, and to get on the ballot, petitioners must secure a majority of signatures from voters registered in the area that would secede. Then, a majority is needed of all the votes cast in the election in which the de-annexation question appears.

"It virtually can't happen," said David Regner, a former state senator from Arlington Heights who led 1970 secessionists and unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to soften the statute. "Whoever crafted the legislation was very farsighted. They almost knew Chicago would be the needy area for tax money and the suburban area would supply a lot of it."

South suburbanites have complained that Cook County is too large. With more than 5 million people, it is the second most populous county in the country, behind Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If it broke off into a state, it would be the nation's 20th largest in population.

Peloquin, mayor since 1985, said local leaders could streamline a new, smaller county government, privatizing services such as health care, and taking over judicial systems already in place, such as the Cook County Circuit Court in Markham.

Cook County wouldn't lose much, he said, since the area--home to some of the poorest communities in the state--doesn't have a strong economic engine, such as O'Hare International Airport.

"They're getting rid of a headache," Peloquin said. "It's our headache; we'll deal with it."

South suburban leaders have long complained of disparities--in housing, jobs, transportation and other services--between southern Cook and other parts of the county.

John Gibson, spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger, said Stroger would not comment on the plan because he had not seen it. But allegations that the county neglects the south suburbs are groundless, he said.

"Region by region, things are equitably distributed," Gibson said.

Commissioner Joan Murphy, whose district covers much of the south suburbs, denounced the proposal, calling it a veiled attempt by organizers to bring attention to the region's problems. She pointed to the remodeling of the hospital in Oak Forest and the U.S. Open golf tournament in Olympia Fields last year as signs the south suburbs are on the county's radar.

"In the past, they would've been absolutely correct: The southern part of the county was ignored. But that is not the case now," Murphy said. Proponents of the new county "are being narrow-minded, shortsighted and selfish," she said.

Robbins Mayor Irene Brodie noted the county opened a medical center in town four years ago and helped repair roads, among other projects.

"I don't think it would be the best idea for some of us," she said. "Some of us have been working with Cook County in positive ways for such a long time."

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Orland Park Mayor Daniel McLaughlin said the concept was interesting, but he needed to study it further.

South suburban officials have long maintained that the tax rate imposed by the county has forced many businesses to flee to Will County or Indiana, with little to show in return.

Alsip Mayor Arnold Andrews, whose village is home to 20,000 residents and 800 industrial businesses, said each week he hears of a business closing shop in Alsip and moving to Will County or Hammond, where real estate taxes are lower.

"We've been moaning and complaining about it for a long time," he said. "It's time we stand up and do something about it."

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