It’s easy to complain about high property taxes in Cook County’s south suburbs. It’s harder to actually do something to address the problem.
Cook County has tasked its top public servants with the challenge of mapping out how the county should best deploy its resources — your tax dollars — to provide services.
A team of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle staffers have drafted a set of policy priorities and spelled them out in a five-year strategic plan. Officials are now giving the public one last chance to comment on the “Policy Roadmap” before the draft is finalized this fall.
“We wanted to make sure before the plan was finalized people could see what direction we’re headed,” Lanetta Haynes Turner, Preckwinkle’s deputy chief of staff, told me Tuesday during an open house at the Markham Courthouse.
The event was the first of six being held this month throughout the county. One of the remaining sessions is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at South Suburban College in South Holland.
People are invited to share their feedback about six topics the county has identified as priorities: public safety, economic development, health care, sustainability, technology and transparency.
The county has published an executive summary of the strategic plan on its website. Public comment may also be submitted online through Sept. 28.
Readers may recall that dozens of community leaders attended a forum about the strategic plan back in April at South Suburban College. Mayors and others shared concerns about how high taxes challenge their efforts to attract and retain businesses.
The plan acknowledges how minority residents in southern Cook County are disproportionately affected by a lack of jobs and other opportunities.
“While governmental bodies need partnerships with non-profit, public and private sector stakeholders in the fight against inequity, Cook County government has a unique responsibility to reduce inequity by ensuring policies and fiscal decisions consistently meet the needs of all residents, especially residents who are often marginalized and excluded from decision-making tables,” according to the draft.
Preckwinkle’s office said the “Policy Roadmap” is the county’s first strategic plan update since a transition plan was adopted in 2011. Preckwinkle took office in 2010 and is reportedly exploring a run for Chicago mayor.
The process of drafting a strategic plan generates collaboration among department heads, elected officials, residents and others. The goal is to realize efficiencies through everyone pulling in the same direction. For example, one objective is to align transportation improvements with economic development efforts.
County administrators discuss the plan in videos published on the county’s website.
“One of the ways we’ll achieve safe and thriving communities is by providing services that perhaps can be in place as an alternative to incarceration,” Delrice Adams, executive director of the Justice Advisory Council, said in one of the videos.
Criminal justice reform and preventive health care measures are logical outcomes of the strategic planning process because the jail and hospital systems consume the bulk of the county’s taxpayer-funded resources.
“Cook County has seen a significant decline in arrests over the last two decades, particularly regarding arrests for violent crimes,” according to the draft. “This has led to a significant reduction in the jail and juvenile detention populations.”
It makes sense that county officials should seek ways to reduce costs in the long run. Once someone is in jail or a hospital bed, there’s no choice but to cover the expense of providing care.
Jobs programs can keep young people out of trouble, and nutrition programs can help obese people live healthier lives. When administered effectively, those types of initiatives are usually worth the investment because they produce results that save taxpayers money.
At the very least, county officials deserve credit for conducting the planning process and trying to collect feedback from people. The county said 253 community leaders and 67 county staff members participated in eight “Policy Roadmap” roundtables between November and May.
Also, the county said 717 county workers completed an employee survey; 278 community members participated in forums between March and May; and 1,579 people completed an online survey about the strategic plan between March and June.
“We want to get as many people involved in the process as possible,” Haynes Turner told me Tuesday at the Markham Courthouse.
For many, the planning process is not easily understood. No residents dropped by the open house during the 25 minutes I spent there.
Still, readers should consider offering public comment before the Sept. 28 deadline. County leaders need to hear personal stories about how people — especially in the south suburbs — are losing their homes to high property taxes and foreclosures.
They need to understand how policy decisions impact the region’s ability to sustain and grow the tax base. The county recently imposed prevailing wage requirements for businesses that receive economic development incentives. Merchants and civic leaders have said the move will discourage private investment.
In the draft, the county addresses how the Southland needs particular attention.
“Cook County intentionally focuses on reducing inequities in south suburban Cook County and other areas that have historically experienced disinvestment in infrastructure and a loss of jobs and economic opportunity,” according to the draft.