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Live free or die in unincorporated Cook County

Saturday, December 13, 2014
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

If counted by itself, it would be the sixth-largest city in Illinois, just a few thousand people behind Naperville and Joliet, and only a third smaller than Aurora or Rockford. Yet it has no town hall and collects no tax itself, though its residents consume local government services.

It—or, perhaps more properly they—are the estimated 126,000-plus Cook County residents who, according to a fascinating report released by the Civic Federation, live in a sort of time warp. They're taxpaying residents of Cook County but enjoy the frontier status of not being incorporated into any town like the 5.1 million other people who live in the county.


Is that a problem? The federation thinks so and has launched a campaign to get those folks incorporated into the nearest community as soon as possible. The watchdog group has the support of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. But many and possibly most of the unincorporated folks seem to like their walk on the semi-wild side—and the lower tax rates they enjoy. And their incorporated suburban neighbors generally seem happy with the status quo.

“Under our system of law, people have the option to incorporate or not,” shrugs Pete Silvestri, former mayor of Elmwood Park and now a county commissioner representing a slice of the western suburbs. “Ultimately, they won't incorporate unless there's enough incentives. So far, that's not the case.”

According to the report—the first detailed look at this situation, in my memory—the 126,114 residents are scattered all over the place. The land on which Maywood Park racetrack sits is unincorporated. But most of the residents are clumped around and north of O'Hare International Airport and southwest, in Lemont, Orland and Bremen townships.

All of those folks are eligible to draw on county government for things like police protection (through the sheriff's office), building and zoning regulation, and liquor controls. So a while ago, Preckwinkle put together a task force to study how to strike up a romance between the unincorporated and potential annexers in nearby villages, with the federation playing matchmaker.

The county could save $37.2 million a year, or $295 per unincorporated resident, if all of those folks did the American thing and signed up to the nearest incorporated burg, federation President Laurence Msall says. Other county taxpayers shouldn't have to pay a “subsidy” for those residents, providing municipal services at scattered locations is “inefficient,” and the services generally are inferior to those provided by towns, he adds.

To sweeten the pot, Preckwinkle has about $2.5 million in her new budget to help provide benefits to the areas that get annexed, such as infrastructure improvements. But so far, the reaction is a big yawn.

For one, staying independent generally is cheaper than paying a municipal property tax—in some cases hundreds of dollars a year cheaper for the average homeowner, even if the services aren't as good as in town, the federation report notes. For another, a lot of folks like living where they have as little dealings as possible with building inspectors and the like. Imagine that! In many cases, villages fear that the added tax revenue they get won't pay the cost of the expanded services they'll have to provide the annexed areas.

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