With more debate and discussion ahead, it's far too soon to take a position on Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's proposal to "speed up" annexation of unincorporated communities. The idea does demand careful study and critical evaluation.
Perhaps the key consideration is something hinted not by Preckwinkle but by the chairman of a task force on unincorporated areas she established six months ago. Both spoke at a news conference Monday announcing the group's report.
"We talked about costs, but really we focused as much on service," said King Harris, chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Council Board of Governors. "We really think that by eliminating unincorporated Cook County, we can improve the service to all our residents."
That might in some circumstances carry a strong flavor of sugarcoating, the pretense that in taking something away from unincorporated areas, the county is actually adding benefits. And, if the process is not carefully managed, Harris' words indeed could prove to be misleading sweetener. But if faithfully steered through the steps the task force outlined, the idea also could provide a needed framework for evaluating how services are delivered to residents of a large, highly urbanized county, consolidating oversights and eliminating duplications.
The final outcome will depend, as it always does, on the commitment and diligence of the leaders who undertake to make the proposal work. Their goal cannot be merely short-term cost savings -- attained by shifting one burden, say for police protection or road maintenance, from the county's budget to a municipality's. It must be better, more-efficient government.
The challenge facing municipal governments, townships and the county is evident in the way the task force broke down its suggestions into fairly well defined immediate and near-term objectives along with a more vague "here be dragons" description of long-term goals. Those goals are designed, in the words of a county statement, "to allow the county to work in cooperation with interested municipalities and residents to craft annexation agreements."
In its necessary drive to bring years of undisciplined spending under control, Cook County has, among many other cuts, consolidated and eliminated health services in the suburbs, eliminated weekend bond courts beginning this weekend and undertaken other efficiencies affecting suburban communities. Such losses naturally are painful, but they can be endured if the visible result is a fiscally stronger county that is not burdening suburban residents with excessive taxes.
Shaping the county into a region with no unincorporated territories is a much more complex mission than shutting down health clinics or consolidating courts. Making it work will require even more deliberate and meticulous communication, study and cooperation, no matter how intriguing it may sound.