Saying unincorporated areas of the suburbs take an inordinate amount of Cook County resources, county President Toni Preckwinkle is eyeing raising fees for those neighborhoods or getting them annexed to nearby towns.
Such measures could offer the county government substantial savings, but it's no quick fix for the current budget crunch, Preckwinkle said.
About 16 percent of the land in suburban Cook County is not part of any town. Those areas, sprinkled across 150 square miles, are governed by the Cook County Board and patrolled by the Cook County Sheriff in what Preckwinkle calls a "tax subsidy to unincorporated areas." Preckwinkle raised the possibility of annexation or added fees in her formal transition report upon taking office in December.
Her report specifically cites services those residents receive for free that a town resident might pay for, such as zoning changes.
With Preckwinkle saying the county faces a $487 million budget shortfall, cutting costs or raising revenue through new fees both have appeal.
Preckwinkle said last month that she and her advisers looked into the possibility of establishing special service areas for unincorporated areas, allowing taxes specifically for those areas, but decided that was not feasible.
Now, she's focusing on a permanent fix, such as municipalities annexing those areas and taking over their administration, which she called "a fairly extensive process" in which the residents and town need to agree.
Residents and towns aren't unilaterally opposed, although no one's eager to take on added costs. So far, the county has not approached them with the idea.
"There'd be a lot of things that would have to be weighed," said Mayor Jim Schwantz of Palatine, which is adjacent to some of the unincorporated land.
There's no denying that taking the unincorporated areas off the county's responsibility would offer Cook County substantial savings, especially in law enforcement.
According to Steve Patterson, spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart, at any given time the county has 40 officers patrolling unincorporated suburban neighborhoods from the Northbrook area to the vicinity of South Chicago Heights. The 170 officers it takes to fill three shifts a day, 365 days a year, get paid an estimated $13 million. That cost that could be reduced -- or the officers could be reassigned -- if the obligation to patrol unincorporated areas ended.
"I don't have a burning passion where I need to be the police chief of all these unincorporated areas," Dart said. "It's the most inefficient form of policing you're going to find."
In the Northwest suburbs, seven officers a shift cover seven beats out of the Rolling Meadows courthouse. Beats are divided up not by size, but by the number of calls they're likely to handle. One beat, Patterson says, covers 78 square miles, so an officer at the far northwest corner of the county near Barrington Hills could be called to the area of Route 53 and I-90 near Schaumburg.
When an officer makes an arrest and has to transport the defendant to Maywood, the beat could be left open for an hour or two, or as many as four hours processing a DUI charge. An officer covering a neighboring beat has to handle both, Patterson said.
"I think it's something that could be done," Dart said of the push for annexation, "but obviously there'd have to be some hook for towns to take on these unincorporated areas.
"The reason some of these areas are unincorporated is because the towns looked at them and don't want them," he added.
Some more tawdry areas are not in keeping with the atmosphere a town might want to project. Others have problems such as code violations that would have to be addressed before annexing.
Preckwinkle said it might have to go to the General Assembly to press the deals with sweeteners, both for municipalities and for residents.
Palatine had success annexing unincorporated areas a decade ago, said Schwantz, who was not in office at the time. "I haven't heard anything from President Preckwinkle's office, anything whatsoever," he said. "There have been no discussions, no discussions at all."
That's not to say he'd be opposed to annexing more area. Palatine previously annexed so-called doughnut holes surrounded by village property, and there is still a fairly extensive tract of unincorporated land within village boundaries. He said it is not considered a problem area. "There's houses in there," Schwantz said. "The people I've talked to who live there enjoy that there's bigger lots and more space between the houses."
Computer consultant Jeff Pietrucha has lived in that area adjoining Palatine for 27 years and said he'd actually welcome annexation, but it's not a view shared by all in the local homeowners' association. "They've always felt they liked being independent," Pietrucha said. Their lots are bigger, about two-thirds of an acre, he said, and they have their own sewer system and well water rather than city water. They also pay their own trash pickup, which Pietrucha estimated cost $300 or $400 a year.
"Being unincorporated, tax structures are a little more advantageous to property owners," Pietrucha added. Yet they do pay for Palatine schools and the library. "So there are a lot of weird trade-offs." The benefits, however, would figure to be minimized if the county started charging additional fees.
Annexation is not something Schwantz was leaping to do, either. "I'd have to research it, find out what's all involved," Schwantz said.
Des Plaines has unincorporated areas to the north, northeast and southwest, but the village hasn't been eager to take them on. Mayor Martin Moylan said he'd reserve comment for whenever Preckwinkle was ready to make a firm and detailed proposal.
With the 2011 budget deadline pressing, that didn't figure to be right away. "She has a lot on her plate, there's no doubt," Schwantz said. "We will be welcome to discuss it when the time is appropriate."