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updated: 12/14/2011 6:12 AM

Your tips: Who pays for elk; cheap cars in Dist. 25

Suburban Tax Watchdog tracks down answers and tips

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  • Visitors to the elk herd at the Ned Brown Forest at Busse Woods near Elk Grove Village can easily spot most of the animals by walking around a 14-acre pen located at the corner of Higgins and Arlington Heights roads.

    Visitors to the elk herd at the Ned Brown Forest at Busse Woods near Elk Grove Village can easily spot most of the animals by walking around a 14-acre pen located at the corner of Higgins and Arlington Heights roads.
    Daily Herald File Photo/October 2008

  • Used cars

    Graphic: Used cars (click image to open)


A school district may not be the first place to look for a cheap used car, but there are deals to be had in the suburbs.

And Cook County residents should head out to Busse Woods Forest Preserve and check out the elk herd -- they're paying for them.

That's what was uncovered looking into some of your tips.

Investigating a variety of suggestions from readers has yielded different results. Some just don't pan out. Some have helped shine a light on questionable governmental activities and prompted full-length columns resulting in changes. And occasionally, the results of the investigations can be summed up pretty quickly. So instead of letting those fall through the cracks, they'll be presented from time to time. Here's some watchdog kibble, if you will.

School of cheap cars

Mike Brown doesn't wear a loud tie and a sport coat that's a decade out of style, but he does occasionally sell used cars.

Part of the Arlington Heights School District 25 facilities director's job is to unload vehicles from the district's fleet that are past their prime.

"We drive our vehicles as long and as hard as we can until they really start falling apart and the transmissions start going," Brown said.

Suburban school district officials said the norm is to trade in decrepit vehicles when they buy new ones. When it comes time to buying replacements for District 25's vehicles, though, Brown said most dealers refuse the old cars as trade-ins because they're in such bad shape. So he sells them on Craigslist, an online exchange.

A look at what the district is selling some of those vehicles for shows the trucks and vans are often fetching less than market value, and in some cases less than what they could bring as scrap metal.

Last year, the district sold a 1992 Ford F-350 pickup for $250. The Kelley Blue Book -- the industry arbiter of used car prices -- suggested the truck was worth between $2,000 and $3,000. Scrap metal outfits in the area said they'd have paid between $400 and $500 for the truck, and even hauled it away. "We're happy to do that," Brown said. "We didn't realize that was an avenue."

In 2009, the district sold a 1995 Dodge van for just $10. Over the past three years, the district has sold 13 vehicles and trailers that originally cost taxpayers $228,928 and received $7,470 in return, just 3.3 percent of the original value. The vehicles sold were manufactured in the late 1980s and 1990s, and their warranties were long expired.

School board President Dave Page said the board has routinely asked about the disposition of old vehicles and has been satisfied with the answers given by the school district's staff. He did not know that some vehicles were sold for less than they were worth in scrap.

"I know we would certainly make attempts to maximize the return, from a philosophical standpoint," he said.

The district's fleet is mainly used for snowplowing and landscaping. Brown said plowing snow with the vehicles puts tremendous wear on their transmissions.

"We plowed 32 times last winter," he said. "With six vehicles and four hours per plow, that's 128 hours each vehicle was worked pretty hard. We had three trucks break down at the end of the season."

Your local elk

If you pay property taxes in Cook County, you are the proud co-owner of 14 elk.

While checking out a rumor that the Cook County Forest Preserve District pays to have the elk shipped in from Montana every autumn and shipped back out come springtime, we found the elk are Illinois residents year round. Actually, they're located in the Ned Brown Forest at Busse Woods near the appropriately designated municipality of Elk Grove Village.

The elk are also from Texas, not Montana. The only direct annual costs associated with the herd is the $2,000 to $3,000 spent every winter on feed for them when they can't forage, according to Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist for the forest preserve. District biologists, like Anchor, check on the herd daily, but that entails a few minutes taking a head count. Occasionally, a veterinarian from Brookfield Zoo also pays the herd a visit.

The elk are located in a 14-acre plot surrounded by an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire near the corner of Higgins Road and Arlington Heights Road. A walking path surrounds the enclosure.

The herd is treated a bit differently nowadays than back in the 1930s and 1940s when Cook County Board commissioners used to come out at Christmastime and thin the herd, then roughly 80 beasts.

"They used to shoot the surplus bulls and donate the meat to the orphanages," Anchor said.

Signs posted on the fence now warn visitors not to even feed the elk.

"We had a lot of problems with people feeding them stale bread and pastries," Anchor said. "It makes them bloat and gassy, and because they have a four-chamber stomach, they are not able to belch, so they could die."

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