A task force empaneled by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is calling for municipalities to annex all unincorporated areas of Cook County to save the county money.
Preckwinkle offered no timeline to eliminate the unincorporated areas where roughly 98,000 of the county's 5.2 million residents live, nor did she estimate what the county would save by no longer having to provide sheriff's patrols and other services to those areas.
Some towns have been reluctant to annex these areas in the past because of infrastructure needs or public safety costs, which Preckwinkle said is the most expensive of the county services provided to unincorporated neighborhoods.
During budget hearings last year, Preckwinkle had called for a surcharge of about $150 per household on unincorporated property owners to maintain sheriff's patrols. She backed away from that and instead created the task force that is calling for an end to unincorporated areas.
The task force included officials from county, municipal and township government, as well as residents and economic development experts. It is led by King Harris, chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Council.
"We want to accelerate annexation of these unincorporated areas," Preckwinkle said. "This will allow for local control over local decisions, which is desirable from a public policy standpoint."
In all, just 6.5 percent of the county's 945 square miles are unincorporated, but there are hundreds of tiny parcels spread throughout the county that amount to a total of 62 square miles of unincorporated land. Preckwinkle said a map showing the unincorporated areas "looks like a Jackson Pollock painting."
While 25 of those parcels account for 86,000 of the unincorporated residents, Preckwinkle and task force officials believe getting municipalities to annex some of the small lots first should be a priority. Perhaps that's because anything under 60 acres can be forcibly annexed into a municipality if it fits minimal criteria. The larger unincorporated areas may take time to negotiate annexation agreements, Preckwinkle acknowledged.
"We could be working on this for years," she said. "This has been ignored because it's complicated and difficult."
Sheriff Tom Dart said his office "injected" itself in the process by supplying the task force with a list of "priority" areas that he believes should be addressed first. He said logic would dictate that unincorporated areas his office has concerns about would take precedence since his costs are the driving factor of the initiative.
"There's one area up north where it's just one house that I literally don't have a patrol unit within miles of and we're called out there all the time," Dart said.
Any annexation would come with additional property taxes to homeowners, which could be a hard sell.
"I can't afford another dollar," said Amrat Desai, a retired bank employee who has lived in an unincorporated area near Des Plaines for 20 years. "I'm on a fixed income, so it would be hard for me to take on more. I'm OK with how it is now. They take care of things. So far, I have no problem."
Desai lives in the most densely populated, contiguous unincorporated area of the county. Almost 26,000 people live in an area near Des Plaines, Park Ridge and Niles filled with multifamily housing. The owner of a $250,000 house in that area would pay about $825 more a year on a property tax bill if the property were annexed to Des Plaines.
Shannon Lieder also lives in that area and believes the additional taxes might be worth it if some infrastructure improvements were made.
"I think we get enough police protection from the sheriff's office. They're always around," she said, "but I think the roads need to be fixed."
Infrastructure improvements are likely to be the key sticking points for municipalities when it comes to annexation. Many unincorporated areas are without curbs, sidewalks, gutters, streetlights or sewage and water lines.
"We have annexed 10,000 to 12,000 people over the past 12 years," said Palatine Village Manager Reid Ottesen. "We know what's involved with having to take over an area that had previously been in Cook County. Many of the areas left have real challenges."
Preckwinkle said the task force is looking at various ways to make unincorporated areas more desirable for municipalities to annex. Ottesen said the only way he could think to do that was by creating a special service area that taxed property owners over several years to build the infrastructure improvements so that the entire municipality didn't have to pay for the work that only benefitted a few.
Cook County Board Commissioner Tim Schneider, a member of the task force, said such taxing districts shouldn't be foisted on property owners and he has requested that no special service areas be created without the majority of property owners agreeing to it.
"What I'm saying is that the overall benefit of incorporating these properties would be to provide greater service at an overall lesser cost to the taxpayer," he said.
Annex: Additional property taxes could be hard sell